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Chimera fic: Into the Bolivian Sunset 9/15

July 20th, 2011 (07:23 am)

A/N: Again, thanks to those who are reading :)  Previous parts here.

 

CHAPTER NINE

Back at the apartment, Saul was passed out on the table, phone still in his hands as he slept slack jawed with his head down on the wood. The apartment was a mess with dirty dishes and papers scattered all over the place - not to mention the growing collection of beer bottles that adorned every available surface.

Purposefully, Stefan closed the door, clomping heavily across the floor. When Saul didn't stir, Stefan dragged out one of the chairs roughly, sitting down with force.

The noise was enough to startle Saul, who sat upright, eyes wide and blinking. When he saw Stefan, the automatic panic faded to annoyance, his mouth twisted scornfully. "Nice entrance, Smirnoff," he muttered. "I'm glad you've been working on your grace this past year."

"Nice to see you, too," Stefan said. "I thought I paid you to work, not sleep."

Saul snorted, rolling his shoulders. "If you want me to work well, some sleep will be required. Even the ladies know that."

Too much information, but there was truth to it.

"Besides," Saul continued. "I didn't actually mean to fall asleep."

That much Stefan trusted. After all, when he took a good look at the other man, he could plainly see how much Saul was sacrificing. His hair was unkempt, his shirt rumpled. It didn't smell like he'd showered that day.

"Well," Stefan said, sitting back easily. He kept his look coy. "While you were sleeping on the job, I got us a lead."

Saul's eyebrows raised. "A lead? A bonafide lead?"

"Michael was taken to a compound outside of Santa Cruz."

Saul stared. "Outside of Santa Cruz," he repeated. "And how do we know that?"

It wasn't like Stefan was a stranger to the wrong side of the law, and it wasn't like Saul hadn't known that before, but still, sometimes owning up to it was hard. Beating up on the guy had made perfect sense when he'd been doing it, but now that he was telling the details to Saul, he understood how it sounded. "We may have run into the CIA agent who nabbed him," he said emphatically, hoping to remind Saul why all of this was worthwhile.

Saul blinked this time, still a little slow on the uptake. The last few days had perhaps taken more of a toll on the playboy than Stefan had thought. "The CIA agent who grabbed him," Saul said in rote, almost like he didn't want to believe it.

Stefan rolled his eyes. On the large list of illegal things they'd done last time, roughhousing a CIA agent wasn't that bad. "The guy's been stationed in La Paz for awhile - other business, from what I could tell. He was instructed to pick up Michael on the side. He's the guy from the surveillance video."

Saul's eyes went wide, a flicker of hope glistening in them. "Balding trench coat guy?"

Stefan nodded. "Spotted him, trailed him, and convinced him to talk." It was more or less the truth, or maybe less the truth and more self-justification. Their ends were just enough; the means would have to play along.

"Convinced him," Saul muttered, shaking his head, clearly not quite in line with Stefan's liberal Machiavellian views on the incident. "You can't just beat up the CIA-"

It maybe hadn't been his smartest move, and yes, he knew that. But, the fact was that it was information they'd needed, and the guy had been an ass, and he'd kidnapped a kid against his will. So Stefan wasn't about to apologize for it. "He told me what I needed to know," Stefan defended.

Then Saul showed his pragmatic side - one reason he was definitely worth the high price tag. "But he could have followed you-"

Still, Saul should have known better. Stefan didn't leave loose ends. At least not ones that were awake. "Not so much since I left him there unconscious."

Saul groaned, rubbing a hand over his face. "Just when I think this can't get any worse."

They had passed worse a long time ago, about the time that they'd seen Michael get snatched on the surveillance. At this point, Stefan figured things could only get better, federal warrants notwithstanding.

And besides, the guy didn't have the balls to admit he didn't have the balls to prevent getting worked over like a rookie.

"You're missing the point," Stefan interjected with exasperation.

"Oh, the point? What point?" Saul asked, his voice hitching a little. "That you're going to get arrested and leave me to do this stupid mission by myself? Or that with you in jail, I'll never get paid?"

Stefan's jaw worked. "The point that we can find out where Michael is now."

Saul's mouth opened. Then closed. Because Stefan had a point - no, Stefan had the only point. "A compound outside of Santa Cruz," he clarified.

"That's what he said," Stefan confirmed.

Tentatively, Saul stood, his face scrunched in what appeared to be concentration. He paused, looking at Stefan in disbelief. "They're actually in Bolivia?"

Stefan shrugged. "I think my source was pretty accurate."

It was a piece of information that Stefan hadn't let himself dwell on just yet. But it was throwing up red flags for Saul. "That's pretty coincidental, don't you think?"

Given the last few days, Stefan was not inclined to believe in coincidences - at least not where the Institute was involved. "You think they followed us here?"

Saul's laugh was short and breathless. "Makes sense if they were after Michael."

There was a certain twisted logic to that, but there were still some holes missing in the working theory that they needed to answer. "But why not nab him sooner? I mean, we're careful, but it's not like I keep the kid under lock and key. He's enrolled in school, hangs out with his friends."

"Well, you said the CIA nabbed him, right?" Saul asked.

"Yeah," Stefan said slowly.

"The Institute may have government ties, but it's not clearly funded or run by the government. To convince the CIA to take the case would require some serious posturing. And we saw the footage - it wasn't just your new CIA friend, but the girl as well. What was her name?"

The thought of the little girl made Stefan cringe. "Wendy," he said.

"One of the Institute's right?" Saul asked. He started pacing the floor.

"Yeah, a pretty damn gifted one at that," Stefan confirmed, the memory of his hand going numb in her presence still eerily vivid in his mind.

Saul gestured in the air. "To pull of an operation with a CIA operative and a representative from the Institute - they'd have to put all new protocols in place. The CIA would be crossing their t's and dotting their i's. Training, intel on Michael, making sure that Wendy was safe to take out. We're looking at months of prep work to organize a sting that gets the job done without hitches."

"Or a year," Stefan said with a slow nod, following Saul's line of thinking. The reality of it was a bit harder to take, though. "They've been scoping us out all year."

Saul made a face. "Probably me, too," he said. He shook his head, looking at the ceiling. "I will never get a good client again. Not with my record so tarnished."

"Easy, Scozsinky," Stefan said. "You help me pull this off, and I'll make sure you don't have to work another day."

Saul seemed to consider that, a small frown pulling at his lips. "That's be all nicely said and done if we knew where the compound was."

"Outside of Santa Cruz," Stefan reiterated, with decidedly less patience this time.

Saul rolled his eyes. "Yes, thank you. But in case you're not up on your Bolivian geography, the area you're describing is rather large."

"How large could it be?"

Pretty damn large, apparently. Saul rolled out the map, drawing a circle around the area the CIA agent had indicated. True, it was still a good lead - a damn good lead - but not quite as good as Stefan had hoped. Though they had narrowed their search from the entire world, the wide radius would still cost them time - time Michael may not have.

It was a bad feeling, a growing doubt gnawing at the pit of his stomach with increasing intensity. The possibility of failure, of losing Michael forever...

Stefan tried not to think about it, but it was heavy on his mind. And as the pieces of the puzzles fell into place, he was beginning to get a glimpse of a big picture that stacked all the odds against him.

The Institute knew who he was. They knew he'd been looking for them. They probably knew everything about him, down to his monochromatic taste in clothes and horrible Spanish accent. They'd managed to track him across borders with some of the best fake IDs money could buy and had staked him out for months.

Worse, they'd already gotten Michael. Taken him from a public place without anyone looking twice. The thought that they'd have any real element of surprise was ostentatious at best, and just plain foolhardy at the worst.

The problem was, what else could they do?

Nothing. They had one option: find the real compound, make their attack, and get Michael back.

End of story.

Resolved, he drew a steady breath. "Well," he said, eyeing the map again. Saul was still standing there over the table, looking somewhat miserable at the prospect. Stefan had no solace to offer him, just the simple facts that failure was not an option. "Then I guess we'd better start looking."

-o-

Michael had watched Star Trek IV once. They had thought it was an apt way to understand the science fiction realm, command structures, and the impact of Star Trek on the modern cultural psyche. That was fine, of course; Michael never cared about the rationale, he just liked the movies.

This one had seemed dated, which of course it was, but he'd found the concepts behind some of the technology interesting, if decidedly preposterous.

But even more than that, the themes.

He could still remember the setting in the beginning. Yosemite National Park. Some place Michael had never seen, would probably never see. It looked epic, and he wondered if rock climbing would be hard without gravity boots to save the day.

His teacher had dismissed the notion: rock climbing was only a moderately useful skill. It had limited contexts.

Michael had always thought that missed the point. The movie said it even, laid it out: the best reason to climb a mountain was simply because it was there.

That was a logic Michael liked. That something was worth doing because it is capable of being done. He had wondered what it would be like to live life under that precept. His time with Stefan had been an experiment in that regard. He didn't need to go to school, but it was an option, so he tried it. He didn't need to watch TV, but the set was already there with cable paid for, so it seemed like an apt choice for passing time.

However, Michael was beginning to see the flaw in that theory. After all, not everything possible was necessarily good. It was something to consider, and he'd thought on it when Stefan tried to convince him to eat a broccoli stir fry, glaringly devoid of anything with a good taste.

It was something entirely else to consider when Dr. Bellucci was administering tests: "Just to see how you react, I think," he said nonchalantly, fondling his tools. A smile widened on his face. "Your responses in extreme situations are quite informative. At this point, you can think of it as throwing spaghetti against a wall. We just want to see what sticks."

The worst part was that Michael could understand the logic. Even as horror mounted in his gut, he could understand the logic, the scientific process. To test, to experiment, to discover-

He swallowed, flinching as the doctor carefully placed electrodes on his forehead, then more on his chest and stomach.

"You are allowed to talk," Dr. Bellucci continued, eyes lingering on Michael.

Michael could talk - but to what end? His throat was strained from screaming and his entire body sore from being stretched out too long. The rumbling in his stomach had given way to a yawning hunger; the simple IV drip barely keeping him hydrated as the hours went on

He supposed his voice would work, but he had nothing to say. His pleas were uselessly. He did not possess Stefan's ability to snark even in the worst of situations.

More than that, speaking was for those who had a voice. Michael figured he'd sold his, just like the Little Mermaid, the instant he turned his back on Stefan and ran.

Dr. Bellucci shrugged. "Pity," he said easily. "The more coherent your reactions, the more I have to analyze. So if at any point you have something you'd like to share, please do."

Michael still didn't speak, but his eyes were glued to the doctor, watching his slow, meticulous movements as he checked the wires and the gauges. There were no instruments this time - no scalpels or retractors or sutures. For a brief second, Michael wondered what that implied, but the thought was cut off before he could even speculate.

After all, thinking was a little hard to do when electricity was jolting through your body.

The burst was fast and sharp, stealing his breath and making his limbs rigid. He could see bright lights exploding behind his eyes, the sparks of surprise too great to even register the pain.

Then, as quickly as it started, the electric pulse cut off, leaving him limp on the gurney, chest heaving, eyes blinking in desperation.

And then there was pain. Like fire tingling in his extremities, vibrating even in his internal organs. His ears buzzed, his body quivered.

"No thoughts?" Dr. Bellucci asked hopefully.

Gaping, Michael rolled his head to the doctor.

"You seemed to have handled that quite well," the doctor continued. "If you could describe the sensation, I could better gauge how atypical your autonomic responses under this level of duress are."

That was a thought. That normal people - real people - would take this worse. That it was possible for it to be worse.

Bellucci sighed. "Very well," he said. "Let's try-"

The electric current jolted him again, stronger this time, blinding him for a moment as the sensation racked his body. His jawed clenched, his fingers in a tight fist, as he willed himself to ride it out.

It seemed to last longer this time, and when the electricity stopped, Michael took heaving breaths, striving to keep the tears at bay even as his limbs twitched in the aftermath.

This time, Dr. Bellucci didn't ask. The electrical current started up again before Michael had a chance to brace himself, and he bit down hard on the inside of his cheek, feeling the blood run back down his throat as his body seized with the intensity of the fresh current.

He was gasping when it was done, entire body working to draw in oxygen. Dr. Bellucci was making a notation. "Fascinating," he murmured. "Some patients have died from volts of that nature. You are a remarkable creature, Michael. Shall we see just how remarkable?"

Michael's resolve crumbled. He shook his head, wetting his lips in a desperate attempt for a reprieve.

But his protests were cut off when his body writhed again, trying to escape a pain that he had no escape from, no hope to overcome. All he could do was hold on - hold on-

The pulse ended, and this time Michael broke off with a sob, his eyes squeezed shut at it all. Holding on for what? What did he have to survive for? What did he have to fight for? What did he have at all?

He had nothing. Nothing.

No family, no life. Not even a pair of clothes to cover himself. He would die like he was created, at the mercy of scientific curiosity. He could be disposed of as medical waste. Nothing more, nothing more.

The life with Stefan - it had been a facade in more ways than one. Not just that Stefan had perpetuated a lie, but that Michael had allowed himself to believe he wasn't supposed to be strapped to this table, tortured to death in the name of progress. Maybe he'd be footnoted in a genetic textbook someday, lauded as one of the important scientific achievements.

He wondered if they'd call him Michael.

He wished they'd call him Misha.

The electric current sang again, stronger yet still, nearly eclipsing his consciousness.

His entire existence seemed suspended, kept aloft by a racing current that would either sink him or save him. The pain was his only anchor to reality, a painful reminder that there was still something left in him to deconstruct. His heart vibrating, but didn't beat, his mind racing but thinking of absolutely nothing.

It stopped again and for a second, Michael thought he was dead.

But then the electricity started up again, stronger yet, burning through him piece by piece, cell by cell. He could feel the neurons firing, his cells struggling to retain control against insurmountable odds. His organs seizing, his blood trembling, his brain leafing through his sparse history against his will.

He remembered Peter, making his bed in the middle of the night. Peter, never coming back.

Jericho shaking his head, telling Michael he was meant for more.

Wendy, who never seemed to say a word, but was always looking for a way to hurt someone.

Stefan, on his knees at the beach, ready for a bullet.

Stefan, holding him tight, forehead to forehead, the whisper of "Why did you do it?"

The answer was still there, etched into Michael's mind. For my brother.

Everything had changed, but that memory hadn't. Michael's decision hadn't.

This time, when the current stopped, Michael didn't even notice. He was still on the beach, still in Stefan's arms, so close to the thing he wanted, the thing he needed, and even when the pulse jolted him again, he simply followed Stefan's voice into the oblivion and hoped that things would be better on the other side.

-o-

There were many drawbacks to having a father in the Russian mob. Really, the whole killing for a living, never having a normal social life, being ferried around by uncles who would kill you for the right price - it gave a guy some issues.

But, all things considered, Stefan had to admit there were some perks. Stefan had rejected most of them - the ends didn't always justify the means - but when his back was up against a wall, sometimes it was nice to have the family to fall back on.

And Anatoly was many things, but he was good to his family, even moderately estranged sons on the run in Bolivia. Anatoly was not a sentimental man, but he was a man of passions. The things he chose to fight for or against, were completely pursued. In this way, fatherhood was a universal equalizer, laying low even the humblest of men with Anatoly by his side. There was almost nothing he wouldn't do for one of his sons. After decimating an entire family in Lukas' name, Stefan supposed financing moves under the radar in South America sort of looked like small potatoes.

From Anatoly's perspective anyway. From Stefan's point of view, it meant a hell of a lot. It was his escape route, his chance to regroup. His much needed safe haven for when they pulled this gig off.

And they would pull this off. Failure was not an option.

Which meant that calling in a favor with Anatoly was going to be necessary. Stefan wasn't sure why it was so hard to make the phone call - Anatoly would be happy to comply and he could do it with far less fuss than anyone else. Still, Stefan had worked hard to sever his ties with the mob, and falling back on it when things were rough just felt wrong.

But not wrong enough.

Still. Dialing the number was hard. Stefan had been sitting on his bed, in his packed bedroom, staring at his phone for the last half hour trying to make himself do it. Saul was going to be back in a half hour, Ava maybe less. Stefan needed to square away their moving arrangements before then, because once they got started, there wouldn't be time for anything else.

But the idea of giving Anatoly another tie, another way in which Stefan was indebted to him - that was hard. Anatoly never gave without strings attached, even in family. Sure, Anatoly would never ask him to kill someone and would never put Stefan in unnecessary risk, but Stefan liked having leverage to make his father keep his distance. Mostly for Michael's sake; the last thing the kid needed while he was adapting to a free life was a crime lord father mucking the already muddy waters.

Michael.

Alone, hurt, captured. Stefan thought of the look on the kid's face when he found out the truth, the way his body went limp in the market.

And Stefan was worried about giving Anatoly too much access to Michael. If he didn't have a place to hide with Michael, everything else was a moot point.

With that resolution, Stefan dialed the phone.

When a voice he only distantly recognized answered on the third ring, Stefan wasn't surprised. His father had provided him with the most private phone number he gave out to anyone, but Stefan was under no delusion that it had been a direct line.

The gruff voice asked for identification, and Stefan kept it short and simple. "Tell Anatoly it's Stefan. If he wants to see me at Christmas, he'd better call me back. He knows the number."

With that, Stefan hung up. Short and to the point - his father would get the message.

That was why Stefan was not surprised when less than five minutes later, his phone was ringing.

He answered it promptly, and was greeted by his father's booming voice: "Stefan, stoipah. You call so seldom. It makes an old man lonely."

The comfortable familiarity was lined with something Stefan suspected was real longing. He wasn't sure if he should feel heartened that his father really did seem to miss him while they were both in hiding or if he should resent the implication that he'd been a less than perfect son. "Sorry," Stefan said curtly. "I've been a little busy."

"Playing house, I know," Anatoly said, but there was still fondness in his voice. "And a bartender? Really, no son of mine should be tending bar like a common man."

Stefan resisted the urge to sigh. What he was or wasn't supposed to do with his life was something to consider, but the last person he needed advice from was his father, the crime boss. However, this was not the time for this conversation. "I'm actually calling for a reason," Stefan ventured onward, sealing a box with tape.

"Ah, yes, yes," Anatoly said. "Sons cannot call their fathers to talk, but for a favor, the line is always open."

The guilt trip wasn't going to work. "I need to relocate."

There was only a brief hesitation. "So the bartending is not working out then?" Anatoly asked, amusement coloring his tone.

"The bartending is fine," Stefan replied curtly. "But we've run into something of a situation."

The insinuation was subtle at best, but Anatoly didn't need it spelled out to know that it was serious. His tone immediate stiffened, and Stefan could sense his spiking concern even thousands of miles away. "Who?" he demanded. "Who is after you? I have been tailing Fyodor for months now - say the word and he can be gone - just like that, the little selfish ingrate-"

Stefan sat down heavily on the unmade bed. He'd stripped the sheets a while ago and he looked up at the ceiling. Kermit was staring back at him, reminding him just how much packing he had left to do. "No, not Fyodor."

"Your own trouble, then," Anatoly concluded. "Michael?"

Stefan swallowed hard, looking at the partially packed boxes of Michael's things. "He's been taken," he admitted hollowly. "The people I saved him from found him."

The pause on the other end of the line was pregnant and measured. Anatoly had upheld his part of the deal, but it was still clear to Stefan that it was impossible for Anatoly to completely embrace Michael as the son he'd lost.

But that wasn't the issue now. It didn't matter how Anatoly acted around Michael if they didn't get Michael back. And if Anatoly was going to have a relationship with Stefan or Michael, they would need his help setting up a place to recuperate when this was done.

"You know where they are?" Anatoly asked finally. "These people who took your brother?"

The your brother was purposeful, and Stefan took it as the sign of solidarity it was intended to be. "Yeah, we've got our leads."

"Just tell me the location and I can take care of it. Once and for all."

By shooting everything that moved, no doubt. Stefan wasn't going to be opposed to bloodshed on this deal, but it was still primarily a rescue operation. He couldn't trust his father's goons to know who to shoot and who to save, and he wasn't about to risk Michael or any of the other kids getting caught in the crossfire.

Besides, this was his fight. It was his fault Michael was gone. And he was going to rescue the kid his way.

"I have that part under control," Stefan said.

"But, stoipah-"

"I have it under control," Stefan snapped, his tone leaving no room for argument.

Surprisingly, Anatoly accepted the proclamation. "So what, then?" Anatoly asked, somewhat coolly. "You want to say goodbye before you go off on your suicide mission?"

Clever idea, but no. Drawing a steadying breath, Stefan said, "I was hoping you could set up a new place for us to stay."

"New housing?" Anatoly asked, truly curious. "Back in the States?"

There was a note of hope in that question. Stefan had to shake his head. "Someplace in rural Bolivia. I'm thinking outside of Concepcion."

"That's not far from where you are now," Anatoly observed cautiously.

"It doesn't have to be far," Stefan replied. "It just needs to be safe."

There was another small pause. "For the two of you, yes?" Anatoly finally asked.

Stefan let out a breath, feeling relief at his father's acquiescence. "Maybe with some room for visitors, too," Stefan said. "Just in case any family wants to say."

The invitation and gratitude were implicit.

"Consider it done," Anatoly said, his words resolved. "I will have Alexsei contact you within the hour with an address. There will be no rent, no paperwork. Just anonymity and seclusion."

It was too premature to be buoyant, not with success still a long shot, but it still felt good to have something go right.

"Oh, and Stefan," Anatoly continued. "Be careful, stoipah."

The softness of the voice almost surprised him. He'd spent years resenting his father, hating everything about him. But since Michael came into both their lives, things were different. Stefan was different and Anatoly's actions could be seen in a different light. Nothing would change the fact that he was a murderer, thief, and a liar, but the small things painted a different picture. The picture of Lukas for Christmas, not heartless and cruel, but an attempt to build a bridge using the only thing they'd ever had in common.

Even now, the offer to destroy the Institute was to protect him. And when Stefan had said now, his father had respected that boundary and taken the role Stefan had requested with a flourish.

It was hard to believe that maybe Michael wasn't the only family in his life. Saul, Ava, even Anatoly - people who mattered to him, who he mattered to.

With a lump in his throat, Stefan found himself smiling. "Don't worry, Dad," he said softly. "I will."

-o-

Refusing Anatoly's assistance was one thing. Having a viable plan of his own was entirely another. They weren't quite looking for a needle in a haystack, and Stefan was pinning his hopes on Saul's connections and Ava's voraciousness that they'd turn up at least a few viable locations to check out.

Ava got back first, barely carrying a haphazard pile of satellite images in her hands. She flopped them heavily on the table, looking up breathlessly at Stefan. "This was all I could get on short notice," she said. "And my guy at the Bureau of Land Management thinks I'm crazy, but it's a 200 mile radius."

Stefan was already standing over the table, laying out the photos as best he could. There was a lot of green space - trees and rivers - and an occasional town.

"I didn't really have time to sort them," she said apologetically. "But the coordinates are in tht bottom corner. It'll take some time-"

But they could put it together like a puzzle, get the big picture and see what stood out.

Stefan was good at puzzles, even if he was never really fond of them. With his cloistered childhood, there hadn't been much to do, and Lukas had loved the things. They'd had stacks of them - puzzles from all over the world, gifts from their uncles and other so-called relatives when they stopped by to pay Anatoly respect. Lukas had a flair for them, too - like everything else in his young life. He could see the missing piece from two feet away, just zero in and grab it to finish the part he was working on.

Stefan wasn't inherently gifted in that way, but he knew how to put things together well enough. It took some trial and error, but he usually got the result he was looking for.

By the time he and Ava had put half their satellite puzzle together, the door opened. It might have been cause for concern, but he'd been expecting Saul and all things considered, they were a bit past the knocking stage.

"Well, well, look who's sitting on the job while I've been out being busy," Saul said, smooth and cocky.

Stefan spared him a look. The confidence in Saul's voice and the swagger in his steps could only be a good sign. "You bring us good news?"

"Of tidings and joy and all that crap," Saul confirmed, holding up a file.

Stefan raised an eyebrow. "That doesn't look like my savior."

Saul snorted. "It's better," he said. "Real estate records for the entire area."

At that, Stefan stopped, getting to his feet to see the stack. "How did you swing that?"

"Every piece of property is registered with the government," Saul said. "Any schmo can find this crap at an assessor's site, but if you want to know about the details of who owns what and for how long, you've got to get access to the full files at the government office."

"Which you got?"

Saul's grin was wider than the Chesire Cat's. "With no small amount of finagling, I'm telling you. Makes Mary's immaculate conception look like a cakewalk."

Ava was standing now, too, looking over at the file with interest. "So all we have to do is look for a facility that fits the bill-"

Stefan knew where she was going. "And then cross reference it with the assessor's history," he said, unable to keep the excitement from his voice.

"Well, damn," Saul said, head cocked. "That almost sounds like a plan."

It was Stefan's turn to grin, eyes flickering from Saul to Ava. "It certainly does."

-o-

Time.

Without a clock, Michael had no way of knowing what time it was. There was a sun outside, but he couldn't figure out if it were day or not.

There was a saying, time healed all wounds. True, time had healed much of his. The incisions were almost invisible now, the vestiges of the electrical shock tests nothing more than a lingering memory. He could almost feel it, the skin stitching together, his body working to mend the wounds.

This meant time was passing, slowly and interminably. He remembered what this was like, this world without time. Minutes and hours and days meant nothing. Years were numbers on a calendar. Aging was an indefinable process, measured in what he could do, not who he was.

Time.

It could have been only hours. It might have been days. For all Michael knew, it had been weeks, months, years.

After all, he woke and slept in irregular intervals, awareness coming and going without his consent. He did not miss it when it was gone, nor did he seek to let it go when he had it. That made it hard to understand the numbers, even when they were very clear to him. In everything, his eyesight was still 20/20, but crystal clear vision couldn't show him what he wanted to see.

A way out. Hope.

But he had none. He had nothing. He was strapped to a table, hungry and cold. The pain from the various procedures were only memories, but his body still ached from its stasis. He did not know how long it would be before his muscles atrophied, his skin rebelled with bed sores, his organs weakened from disuse. Weeks, maybe. A month.

It didn't matter. Time didn't matter. Because Michael had already given up.

He did not look when Dr. Bellucci came in the room again. Sometimes his visits were short and to the point, adjusting a monitor, making notations. Others, they involved poking and prodding. Testing. Sometimes his reflexes. Once breaking a bone just to see how fast it healed.

Funny, Michael couldn't remember which bone. He didn't even know if it was still broken.

Sometimes, the doctor put on an extra IV bag. Occasionally he changed the catheter. Once he force fed him some sludge to "keep up his strength."

Michael did not resist. Michael did not comment. Michael did not look him in the eyes.

The doctor was humming something this time, and he seemed to be moving more briskly than normal. Michael could only figure that his mood was brighter for some reason, though he did not know whether or not that was a good thing.

Dr. Bellucci was more forthcoming than Jericho. "Another test today, Michael," he said cheerfully as he rustled around with an IV bag.

Michael kept his eyes fixed on a point on the ceiling. A small mark. It had been nicked, possibly when the large medical equipment had been moved inside.

There was a jostling on his arm. "I'm quite excited about this one," the doctor continued. "As a subject, you have been more reticent than I expected. The other children are more open in their feelings, though somewhat limited in their capacity to verbalize what they feel and experience."

Michael wondered instead if the marred ceiling was actually a manufacturing error. A mistake made at its conception, perhaps at a factory in China or Taiwan.

"While I have no viable means of creating a higher level of self-awareness in them, I am pleased that I have alternative methods of eliciting conversation from you," Bellucci said.

At that, a chill traveled down Michael's spine, his eyes flicking to Bellucci.

The doctor was smiling, his normal avuncular smile, a twinkle gleaming in his eyes. "And I think you'll be pleased to know that this experiment will be the least painful of them all. In fact, I imagine you won't feel much at all physically. You could even think of this as a respite of sorts."

With that, Dr. Bellucci injected something into the IV, a clear liquid, indistinguishable from the normal saline he received.

The panic was reflexive, even when he knew better. Criminals had the right to remain silent, but Michael had no such guarantees.

Suddenly his stomach roiled and his vision flashed white.

"It is a powerful drug," Dr. Bellucci advised. "It won't take long for you to feel its full effects."

Michael's lack of time perception notwithstanding, the effects came on hard and fast. At first, everything tingled, like pins and needles. He was hit with a wave of heat before everything went cold. His heart rate increased rapidly, his entire body pulsating with a sudden adrenaline that was nearly uncontrollable.

With no outlet, Michael felt himself trembling, hairs rising on his arms as goosebumps prickled the skin of his arms and chest. He was keenly aware then of everything around him, of the air molecules colliding with his body, the stale air being processed in his lungs.

Dr. Bellucci was right; it didn't hurt. But it was disconcerting and overwhelming; a deep need to move with no ability to do so. His mouth opened with a gasping breath as he tried to pull the oxygen fast enough for his overtaxed body. Every part of him was working overtime but with no discernible end, and yet he felt lightheaded with exertion and he came to the understanding that he might pass out as his vision almost whited out completely.

But consciousness did not leave him - not completely. Instead, he lingered for a moment in the whiteness before it retreated to a more acceptable level. The room was still the same - the machines and the monitors - but he seemed to be alone now.

Then Michael realized that wasn't all that was different.

He was sitting up.

Surprised, he looked down at himself, seeing a pair of jeans and the Einstein t-shirt he'd bought during his first real shopping trip. Holding out his arms, they were unchained and unmarred.

Experimentally, Michael slid off the gurney, his tennis shoes squeaking on the linoleum floor.

Freedom.

The thought came to him unbidden, and it was too real to deny. This was what he'd long for, the thing he'd craved. A chance to escape. A chance to be.

"And where do you think you're going?" a voice asked.

Startled, Michael turned and saw that the room was not as empty as he might have thought. True, Bellucci seemed to be gone, but there, standing at the end of the bed in his place, was Stefan.

The dark hair, the scar on his face.

Michael's heart lurched. "Stefan."

The other man quirked something of a sardonic smile, shrugging a bit. "Who were you expecting?"

"No one," Michael said honestly. "I thought you would have given up on me."

"And why would I do that?" Stefan prompted.

Michael blinked, the memory almost too painful to verbalize. "I hurt you."

"It's just part of who you are, Michael," Stefan said.

Michael shook his head, the denials almost catching in his throat. "I don't want it to be that way."

Stefan's smile was almost sympathetic. "There are some things you can't fight. You can feel that, can't you? The power to hurt and kill lurking inside of you?"

Michael shook his head. "No," he lied, and inexplicably his lower jaw quivered. He dropped his gaze. "At least I don't want to."

"But you can't fight it sometimes."

Michael looked up again, feeling more desperate. "I didn't mean to hurt you. It just happened. The emotions were too much, and it just happened."

"It's quite alright, Michael," Stefan continued, and his voice sounded funny. Reserved. "As I said, this is who you are."

This was who he was. A killer. Someone who would turn on the one person who had showed him true and unselfish kindness. He deserved this rebuff. Stefan's lack of malice was more of a mercy than he could have hoped to receive.

Still, it was hard. Tears welled in his eyes. "I just wanted to be your brother," he admitted.

Stefan sighed. "Oh, Michael. You are a curious case. The desire to be something you're not has deluded you."

Michael shook his head. "It wasn't like that. You said-"

"Tell me more about the powers you used," Stefan interjected.

Michael paused, cocking his head. "But...I don't understand."

"You do," Stefan prompted, an unfamiliar twinkle in his eyes. "You said you couldn't control them. Explain what it felt like."

Stefan never wanted to talk about the powers, not like that. Even if Stefan hated him, that wouldn't be the thing he'd ask about. In fact, if Stefan truly understood what Michael was, he might even kill Michael himself. A good deed. Stefan didn't think he was a good person, but Michael knew he was.

Michael knew Stefan.

This wasn't Stefan.

The realization made him panic, his breath lurching. He edged toward the door, shaking his head. "This is a hallucination," he said decidedly. He remembered the drug Bellucci had administered. "This is how he wants me to talk."

"It's not important," Stefan prompted, standing eerily still. "I'm here now. We can talk. Can't we?"

Michael wanted to. He really wanted to. He wanted Stefan to be there. He wanted to see him again before all of this was over. He wanted the chance to say he was sorry, to say that Stefan never should have lied to begin with, that Michael just wasn't worth it.

And if he wanted that chance - he had to run.

Now.

The need to move was overpowering and he turned on his heel, sprinting for the door. But when he reached the handle, it disappeared and Michael was grappling at a blank wall.

Turning in horror, Stefan was still standing at the end of the bed, but he wasn't wearing the black t-shirt anymore, but a white lab coat, an ill-placed smile on his face. "You simply need to focus, Michael. Let it happen. Just like before."

Just like before. Just like before?

Michael shook his head. "I don't know how it happened before," he said, the admission both honest and desperate.

"Think hard. Tell me what we were doing when they manifested themselves," Stefan said.

But it wasn't Stefan, Michael reminded himself.

He had to leave.

If the door didn't work, then the window. Or a ceiling tile.

He looked up. There it was - the defective tile. He could move it; he could pull himself out and climb out.

"Focus," Stefan said. "I need you to focus."

Michael sneered, climbing on the bed. "You're not my brother."

Reaching, his fingers brushed the tile, but the minute he pressed, the expanse was flat and void.

Shocked, he looked back to Stefan's form, which shook its head. "You have no brother, Michael," it said. "You were created in a lab. You will be exterminated in a lab when your usefulness is spent. So, for both our sakes, tell me what I want to know. Tell me about your powers."

The urge to run was paramount, but the inklings of reality were taking hold. This was a hallucination. He couldn't run in a hallucination. He couldn't escape because he was still tied to a bed.

That knowledge made reality shift, spinning him at a dizzying pace until he was on his back again, looking up. This time he could see the IV in his arm, the blank canvas of his skin, the cuffs on his arms, his legs.

But Stefan.

It was still Stefan.

Stefan walked closer, leaning forward. "Tell me what you did," he said, a demand and a plea.

Michael's stomach turned and he closed his eyes, shaking his head.

A hand grasped his arm, shaking him. "Tell me."

The order was vehement now, cutting through his hazy mind with a clarity that shook him entirely.

His eyes snapped open, and Stefan's face was close, eyes blazing, bright light exuding from behind him. The entire room seemed to be on fire, burning with a flame so hot that it consumed things instantaneously. The door, the walls, the ceiling. The defective tile, the medical equipment, all of it until there was just Michael and Stefan.

Stefan and Michael.

"Tell me about why you hurt me," he said.

Delusion or not, Stefan deserved an answer.

Stefan deserved so much.

He choked on a sob, wanting to fight it but knowing he couldn't. He would answer this question. He would answer all of the questions, one after another after another until daylight broke and darkness fell, whichever came first, whichever came last.

NEXT