Title: From Theory to Application

A/N: So I first fell in love with Rob Thurman's books when I met Cal and Niko in the book Nightlife. With her latest offering of Chimera, I fell just as hard for Michael and Stefan. Hence this fic. So much thanks goes to sendintheklowns, who is wholly to blame for this obsession as she actually bought me the book and then proceeded to egg me on while I got all giddy about Michael and Stefan. Also thanks to geminigrl11 for the beta.

A/N 2: This reads as a missing scene from the end of the book, picking up from the showdown on the beach.

Disclaimer: These characters belong wholly to Rob Thurman.

Summary: Stefan had nothing left. He had given all he had to save Michael, to keep himself. He had not been wholly successful, but his fight was over. For better or worse, he had played every card he had and now he just had to hope it was enough.

-o-

The thing about adrenaline was that it only took him so far.

Yes, he'd survived a bullet to the leg and one to the shoulder, and he'd even rallied long enough for one last ultimatum to his father, but Stefan had to admit, at that point, it was about all he had left to give.

In fact, even staying in a seated position, Michael hoisted in his arms was getting a bit difficult. His leg was positively numb now, and that uncomfortable sensation was slowly spreading throughout the rest of his body, making his arms clumsy and hard to control, his breathing strained and difficult.

It could have been blood loss or shock or any other medical or psychological malady; Stefan wasn't sure. What he was sure of was that he was going to pass out if he didn't do something about it - and fast.

But he couldn't pass out. Michael needed him. Michael needed-

"The doctor," Stefan said, trying to keep his voice steady. He looked up at his father again. "Where is the doctor?"

There was a second of indecision on Anatoly's face, still lingering from Stefan's blunt ultimatum. Anatoly was a proud man, one who took control and wielded power with indisputable force and cruelty. Asking him to accept a stranger, to embrace a child he didn't know - it would push Anatoly's limits, strain the edge of his capacity to love.

His actions here would determine much of their future relationship. To save any kind of future with Stefan, Anatoly would have to condescend to save Michael as well. Stefan did not doubt that his father was capable - he knew his father's ability to lie, to make people believe even the most outrageous falsehoods.

The question was if he would.

The moment of indecision passed, and Anatoly looked back, eyes straining toward the beach house. "Peter should be back soon," he said. He looked back at Stefan, nodding with certainty. "You are fortunate that we are well equipped for all situations."

Fortunate wasn't the word that Stefan would use, but at this point, he had to take what he could get.

Because the way things were going, Stefan didn't have much else. Just a father who had murdered an entire family, a little brother he had refused to mourn, and another brother who was possibly dying in his arms.

Stefan looked at Michael again, heart breaking at his stillness. Michael had unparalleled self-control, but the limpness, the way his body sagged - it wasn't like the younger boy. Michael never preferred to leave himself that vulnerable. Even in sleep, he always seemed to be tense, ready to spring if necessary.

But now - Michael just lay. Like a heavy rag doll in Stefan's arms. For the first time since Stefan had met him, Michael was completely defenseless, sprawled over Stefan, one hand outstretched onto the sand, palm turned up and fingers curved.

It was a garish memory that flashed with horrible clarity back to the night Lukas had died. The image that was ingrained in him, the moment he should have known that Lukas wasn't just unconscious - he was dead.

Stefan's breath caught in his throat and he pulled himself closer to Michael, curling over him protectively. Michael wasn't dead. He wasn't dead, and he couldn't die.

Anatoly looked back over his shoulder, snapping his fingers toward another one of his men. "Gregor, you carry the boy to the house - gently."

The order was emphatic, and Stefan felt himself dare to hope. "I want to go with him," he said.

"Yes, yes, of course," Anatoly said while his men came forward. "I will take you there myself."

"Michael first," Stefan said, his voice insistent.

Anatoly stepped closer kneeling down. "Then you must let him go," he said, his words as gentle as Stefan had ever heard.

Stefan blinked and realized that Gregor was there, rigid face not unkind but composed. Just business to him. Some days to kill, some days to save. Stefan's only solace was that he was paid to follow orders, and for now, Michael was under Anatoly's protection.

Let go. The words tumbled through Stefan's waning consciousness. He had to let go.

His body made the decision when his mind could not. His arms loosened, his body going slack, falling backward even as Michael was scooped up carefully. Strong arms caught him, cradling him, and Stefan blinked hazily in the darkness to catch a glimpse of Michael. Gregor had the boy hefted in his arms, head lolled against his broad shoulder. Gregor's pace was steady, but quick, even as one of Michael's arms draped free, dangling lifeless as they approached the house.

"Now your turn," Anatoly said, as casual as a suggestion, but he was moving with a strength that yielded no argument. Anatoly was old, but still strong, and even before Stefan could protest, his father was pulling him up, draping one of his arms across his father's shoulders.

Stefan's leg screamed in protest, and he nearly went down again, but Anatoly's grip did not falter.

"One step at a time," he coached, moving them forward.

Stefan had no choice but to follow, breath in his throat and heart pounding.

"Good, good," Anatoly praised. "You are stronger than when last we saw each other. I am very pleased."

There was real pride in his voice, and Stefan found the urge to please him almost inescapable. This man was not much of a father, but he was still something. And if this whole thing had taught Stefan nothing, it had taught him that sometimes the best family were those who merely stood by you, no matter what.

Better yet, family were the ones who drove you when you were unconscious, who took you to outlaw doctors when there was no other choice.

The ones who carried you when you had nothing left to give.

Stefan had nothing left. He had given all he had to save Michael, to keep himself. He had not been wholly successful, but his fight was over. For better or worse, he had played every card he had and now he just had to hope it was enough.

But Anatoly was there. Michael was inside with the promise of a doctor on the way. Even if Stefan could not do this alone, maybe they could do it. Together. Anatoly was many things, but he wasn't Uncle Lev, who would sell him out when things got rough. He wasn't even Natalie, who could love so purely but walked away when Stefan pushed. Anatoly was his father, and Anatoly had made his choice. To save Stefan, to save Michael. To save them all.

When Stefan felt the darkness closing in, there was a peaceful promise that he would still get there after all, especially as his father scooped him into his arms and carried him the rest of the way.

-o-

His consciousness dwindled, but it never left, and Stefan clung stubbornly to the vestiges of awareness even as he drifted.

He had something important to do, after all. He was a big brother. Lukas...

No, Michael. Stefan had thought there was no room in his life for anyone but his bright-eyed kid brother, but he'd been wrong. That fact shouldn't have been much of a surprise, but the intensity with which he'd made the error was staggering. No one could replace Lukas, but then again, no one could replace Michael. In the big brother lottery, Stefan had gotten pretty damn lucky - twice - and he didn't want to have to try for a third time.

Which is why he needed to hold on. To wake up. Because Michael needed him. Michael needed him.

It was a persistent thought, strong in its intention and deep in its motivation. Michael needed him and he needed Michael, much like he needed to breathe.

Breathe.

He had to breathe.

Sucking in a painful breath, Stefan became aware that he was no longer moving. He wasn't on the beach anymore and he wasn't outside. In fact, it was bright - harshly so - and he was lying on something soft.

A bed. He was inside the beach house, in one of the bedrooms.

Blinking, Stefan became aware of pain - and lots of it. His leg, his shoulder, radiating throughout his entire body. Jericho had really done a number on him. On both of them...

With a gasping swallow, Stefan tried to look around, searching for Michael. He caught site of a pair of men in the door, so he rolled his head the other direction. There, he saw his father and another man, talking in muted, rough voices.

"You're the one who called me out of my house, dragged me from my wife and my children!" the other man said, and his words were loose, slung together with more than an air of inebriation.

"You only object that I took you from your drink, old friend," Anatoly replied pointedly.

The other man stiffened, but did not deny, and then Stefan recognized him. One year when Lukas had been five, he'd stepped on glass, slicing his foot open. Victor had taken care of it, as a favor to Anatoly. Then again, when Stefan had sprained his ankle on the dunes at thirteen, Victor had done an x-ray.

Like most of Anatoly's "friends," Victor was friendly and effusive, and the doctor had always been doting and soft around the edges. He was pudgy, with a round face and round fingers. He was adept, though, knowing how to distract well enough that Lukas didn't even cry when Victor had neatly stitched the gash.

"I call you friend, Anatoly," Victor said back heavily. "And I would help you if you called, but to bring me here with threats and force?"

"Friends are hard to come by these days," Anatoly replied. "And I do not entrust my family to just anyone."

"Well then maybe next you should keep better care of your family," Victor said with a trace of a sneer. He sat down heavily on the bed, which creaked under the weight. "This one, he is not well."

Stefan's eyes focused and realized that his father and the doctor were not talking idly. They were standing over Michael, who was stretched out on the bed. The younger boy looked macabre under the lights, bright blood staining his chest. His shirt was cut away now, and a pressure bandage was strapped on, pressed tight over the wound. It was already damp with blood, rising and falling with the uneven movement of Michael's lanky torso.

There was a pair of leads attached to his chest, stringing up from the bed to a heart monitor. Stefan knew his father was well-prepared for most disasters, but sometimes it still surprised him just how much Anatoly had at his disposal.

"Then what are you waiting for?" Anatoly snapped. "I do not pay you to sit around and make chitchat."

"He needs a hospital," Victor said.

"A hospital is not an option," was Anatoly's flat reply.

Victor stared at him. "Do you wish him to die?"

Anatoly's eyes narrowed, cold and hard, and Stefan felt himself recoil reflexively. "That is why you are here."

To Victor's credit, he didn't move, but he stood still for a moment, as if he were waiting for Anatoly to change his mind. When no retraction came, Victor's mouth opened, his face reddening.

"Anatoly, you must be out of your mind," Victor said, his words still slurred but voice surprisingly strong and lucid. "The boy might survive with a level one trauma center, but even that would be something of a long shot. You know I help you as I can, but I do not overestimate my skills. This one I cannot save."

The words were spoken with compassion, but they still made Stefan flinch. After all of this, he couldn't lose Michael now. He couldn't lose Michael ever.

Anatoly's face was hard, almost impassive, but Stefan could still see the turmoil in his eyes. Michael was nothing to him, a boy he'd never met, a nobody pulled into his life by a wayward string of accidents and miscommunications. Anatoly could be a cruel man, he could be cutthroat and empty hearted. He had to be, to get to where he was and survive.

But then his eyes locked on Stefan's, holding his gaze for a long second. Anatoly had shown no indication that he knew Stefan was awake, but still, somehow he knew. Stefan was everything to him, everything he had left.

Michael, on the other hand, was nothing to him. Anatoly had no cause or reason to save him. He had let friends die for far less.

Anatoly had lost his wife, his youngest son. His business was strong, and he'd fight to the death for it, but there was only one thing he'd live for: his remaining son.

Stefan shook his head, forcing himself to remain conscious. His ultimatum on the beach still stood, and Anatoly had to understand that. They were a package deal now, Michael and him. And if Anatoly wanted any sons left to survive him in his old age, he'd have to take both.

His lips thinned and he looked stonily back at Victor. "You will save him," he said, voice sharp. "You will save both of them, if you know what is good for your own health. I know you have a nice set up, nice little place. Out of the way, off the beaten path. You think you're untouchable, but I know better. And you know better."

Victor's eyes widened, his jaw trembling imperceptibly. Anatoly's hints were not exactly subtle. He shook his head. "I've always helped you when I could," he said, a tremor in his voice. He glanced at me. "Stefan I can save, a little work, but it can be done, and he'll even walk again. But this one - what is he to you?"

What is he to you? The question was plain and it was to be expected. Friends were essential to this life, but they were always expendable. Even the closest, because such things could always be bought with a high enough price. Even Uncle Lev, who Stefan's father would mourn in public, was not one to bet the farm on, a lesson Stefan had learned the hard way.

His eyes drifted to Michael again. On the bed, he looked paler than before, white face almost translucent beneath the blonde flop of his bangs. From his bed across the room, Stefan could not see if the younger boy was breathing anymore, but the heart monitor still showed a slow, irregular beat, and it was the only solace he had left.

This time Anatoly didn't hesitate. "He's my son," he replied, gravel in his tone. "They're both my sons."

Even with the blood loss and subsequent shock, the certainty in Anatoly's voice was clear to Stefan. Stefan did not count on his father for much, but the power of his will was a force to be reckoned with, a lesson Stefan had learned many times over his childhood.

Victor's expression went slack for a moment. "But I thought-"

Anatoly moved with a speed Stefan rarely saw from him. He had Victor by his lapels, pulling him close. "You thought wrong," he said. "My boys, you will save them, much as you would save your very own."

Victor was terrified now, entire body shaking. Things were hazy around the edges, but to Stefan that much was very clear. Shaking his head, Victor tried for reason one last time. "Then take him to a hospital," he said. "Anatoly, the boy needs-"

"A doctor," Stefan's father replied with venom. He threw Victor harshly toward the bed where Michael was laid out. "Now I suggest you get to work."

Victor stumbled, catching himself on the edge of the bed where he stayed for a moment. With a deep breath, he straightened, unsteady fingers reaching for his medical bag. He nodded jerkily, opening it. "I assume you have supplies?"

Anatoly nodded to one of his men in the door, who ducked out without a word. "IVs, blood, equipment," he said. "It will be all at your disposal."

It was clear by the grim expression on Victor's face that he wasn't sure that would be enough, but to give the man credit, he did not waver. "I need blood and saline, both in IVs. Get me an intubation tray, and a ventilator if you have one, or we'll have to do it by hand. His vitals are too low to operate on without taking that much strain of his body. We'll need to keep the blood circulating in him for as long as we can." He held up the x-ray with a grimace. "The punctured lung is the worst of it, but the blood loss will kill him first. We'll start with a chest tube, so I hope that the stain on your wood floor is not a color you're set on."

Anatoly's man came back, pushing a cart full of medical equipment. Stefan wasn't sure why it surprised him, but the size of it still did. His father was prepared for hell or high water, and everything medical crisis in between. All of that, and it hadn't been enough to save Lukas.

It had to be enough to save Michael.

"We'll deduct it from your bill," Anatoly promised him.

Victor smiled ruefully, leaning over Michael again. He plucked something from the cart, manipulating some tubing before deftly inserting something into Michael's limp arm. He hung a bag of clear liquid from an IV pole, repeating the action with a bag of blood. He rummaged on the cart one more time, brow furrowed and damp with sweat, pulling off something else. "You've updated your stock," he muttered.

"You never can tell what kind of disasters to expect," Anatoly agreed. He was hovering, eyes watching Victor's every move.

Stefan barely could pay attention to the doctor, though, not with his attention so transfixed on Michael.

Suddenly, the heart monitor blipped, crying out an alarm.

Victor startled, looking at it and cursing. He unwrapped the package he was fumbling with faster, wiping a small cloth at a patch of exposed skin on Michael's skinny ribcage. Not even all the sweets and fast food had fattened him yet, but it'd only been a week.

A week. Stefan's own heart clenched. How could it only have been a week and already Michael was everything?

Stefan's vision was tunneling a bit, and the action suddenly seemed far away. But he could still see it, as though he was watching underwater while Victor took a scalpel, hesitating only for a moment before cutting it deep into Michael's side before inserting a tube close behind it.

Michael barely twitched, limp and prone, but Stefan felt his own stomach turn violently. When it didn't settle, he convulsed, a new pain flaring in his leg and shoulder as he tried to roll on his side to vomit.

There was the sound of feet and Stefan's vision blacked out for a moment. Acid burned up his throat, eclipsing his consciousness. His heart thrummed in his ears so loudly for a moment that it was all he could hear.

Stefan retched, curling in on himself desperately.

"Easy, easy," a voice filtered through Stefan's haze. Strong, steady, soft. "Easy, son."

Stefan let it settle over him, but it was still cold comfort. He retched again, but there was someone supporting him this time, a strong pair of hands on his shoulders as he threw up.

It seemed to take forever, an interminably long time of gasping and hurling, and when it was over, Stefan felt spent, eyes wet and body aching. A warm hand swept through his hair, a whisper floating over him. "Just breathe," it coaxed. "Relax."

Stefan's time in the business had taught him the value of following orders. Sometimes it saved his life. And the voice was so comforting, so sure...

Stefan let himself melt into it, his weight sagging even as he was being carefully rolled onto his back. He was settled back against the pillow when his eyes fluttered open, his fuzzy gaze settling on his father's face.

The dark eyes were concerned, hair flyaway, the sharp lines of his face set with worry. "Stefan, you need to relax," he said.

Stefan blinked, swallowing the cotton in his mouth. "Michael," he said with effort, surprised by how bad his own voice sounded.

Anatoly's hand rested heavily on his forehead. "Victor is with him now," he said, and there was a certainty in his tone that was reassuring.

Stefan shifted, craning to look around his father toward Michael. The tube in his side was still there, dripping with blood. Michael's face was obscured now, long bangs swept aside in a rush and a tube was down his throat, taped down hastily. The tubing snaked away from the bed to a noisy machine on the cart. Victor had moved to the far side, instruments laid out on a chair. His hands were shaking as he pulled away the pressure bandage.

Anatoly stepped to the side, just enough to block Stefan's vision. Before he could protest, his father was nodding to one of his men. "Victor is doing all he can," he said simply, unmoving from his spot. Stefan had no strength to fight him. "Peter has some first aid training. He's going to start an IV. You need to rest, Stefan. You are hurt as well and it goes against my better judgment to have you sit here idle for so long with injuries such as your own."

Inexplicably, Stefan's eyes watered. His body hurt, with an intensity that was building to incapacitating proportions.

Something pricked his arm and he gasped, looking as one of the meaty thugs in his father's guard inserted an IV. Stefan let his gaze drift away, going back to his father. "You'll save him?" he asked, and he didn't care how young he sounded.

Anatoly held his gaze for a long moment, before he sighed, resigned and broken. He looked old, worn down. It was a look Stefan had never seen, with a humanity and vulnerability Stefan had never seen, not since Lukas died.

He pursed his lips and nodded. "I will expend every resource I have," he promised. "And all I ask of you is to survive this, Stefan. I need you to live, and if you need him, then I will lay down everything to save you both."

Stefan knew his father was full of promises. He was always ready to give orders, to use both falsehoods and truths to his own gain. But this was different, and Stefan knew it. He could feel it, along with the bullet in his shoulder, the shattered bone in his leg, and the sluggish beating of his heart. He could feel it like Michael in his arms and Lukas' ghost flitting from his shoulders after all these years. Lighter and heavier all at once. Balanced for the first time in ten years.

His father was different, too. Because Anatoly had killed all his enemies, played his cards right to make the best friends, and as he faced the dwindling days of his empire, Stefan knew that those things couldn't make him happy. Vengeance gave him closure, but it didn't fill the void that Lukas had left. His father needed him, and for tonight, Stefan was able to admit that maybe he needed his father as well.

His eyes drifted again, flicking past his father in a futile attempt to see Michael once again. He couldn't see much - Michael's long limbs, a puddle of blood on the floor, Victor's shaking elbow as he operated.

Stefan had worked hard to get here. Used up all his money, burned up all his contacts. He'd turned his back on the few things in his life that worked, and skipped town on the things that he knew he might never really outrun. He'd given up his soul in so many ways trusting that he'd find it when he finally got here.

He had. He hadn't found Lukas, but he'd found Michael, and even though nothing would bring his brother back to life, he was pretty sure Michael could breathe life back into Stefan's hardened soul.

Things were fading now, warmth spreading through his body. The drugs, Stefan realized absently. And even as awareness dissipated, Stefan held on fast to the few things he could count on. His father's promise, Victor's shaking hand, and Michael's words, echoing in his mind: for my brother.

Blood didn't make brothers, but sometimes it did. Stefan carried Michael's blood just as readily as Michael carried his. Stefan held onto that, even as everything else slipped away, he held fast, just as he always had. For my brother, Stefan thought as the darkness took him. Always for my brother.

-o-

Stefan had been hurt a few times in his life. Concussions, he was well acquainted with, and he'd suffered a few broken bones growing up. The scar on the side of his face was the worst of it, the only visible marker he carried of those injuries, but even that looked worse than it was.

For all the danger in Stefan's life, he'd always been relatively safe. More likely to get knocked around in football than get hurt on the job. Even while working for Konstantin, Stefan had stayed mostly unscathed. He was too determined to die, he figured. Too many things in his life undone that he couldn't be hurt.

Maybe because he knew Lukas was dead, maybe because he'd finally found Michael, maybe just because Stefan's so-called luck had finally run out, but he was hurt now.

More than that, he really hurt.

A deep and pervasive feeling, aching and throbbing, even deep into unconsciousness. It trapped him there and beckoned him out all the same, until he felt like he was stuck halfway between, neither awake nor asleep, even though he desperately wanted one or the other - anything to fend off the pain that kept him helpless and trapped.

He stayed like that for a time, how long he couldn't know. Time had no meaning here; suspended and elongated, it could have been seconds or hours, and even the cadence of his heart wasn't a reliable sign.

But then he heard something - far away. Distant. Voices.

"Damnit, Victor, you don't need to do that." Anatoly's voice was taut, the anger masking the fear - but only just.

"I need to assess his level of awareness," Victor's voice shot back, terse and surly. He sounded tired, worn out. "You want me to save him like my own, then let me do my job."

There was a grumble, something unintelligible, then something rough grating against his chest with a clarity that made Stefan gasp.

His eyes snapped open, blinking rapidly as they adjusted to the glaring lights. Anatoly was there, standing over him, brow knit together. Victor was next to him, sitting on the bed, a frown on his face. "Well," the doctor said. "At least we know you're not dead."

Stefan gaped, still trying to catch his breath as he took it all in. He was still in the beach house, on the bed they'd laid him on when they first came upstairs. Anatoly looked tired, worn around the edges. Victor was considerably worse off, blood smeared all over his rumpled shirt and splattered distastefully on his slacks.

Stefan swallowed convulsively. "Michael," he said, trying to push himself to see around them. "How's Michael?"

Anatoly's hand was on his shoulder again, restraining. "He's fine," he said. "Young Michael is resting, right over there."

With that, he moved out of the way just enough so Stefan could see. Michael was there, lying mostly as he'd last seen him. He still wasn't moving, his eyes were closed, and the tubing and monitors were still there. The bloody floor had been mopped up, but the pile of bloody sheets and towels in the corner were a glaring testament to everything Stefan had missed.

With effort, Stefan worked more saliva into his mouth. "He's okay?" he asked, because it was hard to believe.

"He's fine," he repeated with more vigor this time. "Tell him, Victor."

Victor raised his eyebrows in a look of indignation. But he flattened his lips and looked at Stefan blandly. "He survived surgery, if that's what you want me to say," he said, his tone measured.

Stefan recognized the reservation in his voice, just as readily as he knew the blanket overconfidence in Anatoly's. They were lying to him, keeping the truth from him. Michael had survived surgery, that much was evident, but they didn't think he would live.

That revelation settled heavily on Stefan's chest and his breathing hitched.

Anatoly's hand lightened, skimming down his arm before he pulled it to his own brow, wiping it uneasily. "Michael is fighting very hard," he said. "You told me how remarkable was, and we are seeing it now. He will be fine."

It was a well-crafted lie, couched in a diffident tone that almost sold the sincerity of it. But it was nothing more than what Stefan wanted to hear, blanket encouragement to help him survive whatever surgery lay ahead of him.

But Stefan had to know. He had lived too many years lost in well-intentioned lies - he had to know. He shook his head. "Tell me how my brother is."

Something flickered in Anatoly's expression. Whether it was Stefan's tone, or the reference to his brother, Stefan wasn't sure. He just knew it didn't matter.

With effort, Stefan propped himself up on his elbows, ignoring the flare of pain. "Tell me about Michael."

"Michael survived the surgery," Anatoly said, firmly this time. "Victor here has done everything he can. It was a long procedure, but Victor did not waver. Let us trust it to Michael now, shall we? The boy is strong, yes?"

Strong, most definitely, but he was just a boy. One who had been shot clean through, and Stefan knew that even super healing couldn't fix everything.

"I practice medicine, not miracles," Victor grumbled. He gestured wildly in the air. "Let the boy make his peace with his brother because no matter how much you threaten me and mine, I cannot promise he'll have a chance to in the morning."

The words were heavy with a pessimism that was unsettling. Victor knew his life was at stake, just as readily as Stefan's or Michael's. And yet, the dire prediction, the plain reality of it - the doctor would have to be desperate to admit such possible failure. There was no fake posturing, there were no airy reassurances. Victor had already resigned himself to the possibility of failure and everything it entailed.

It was a reality that Stefan had not allowed himself to consider, not since they'd gotten Michael off the beach.

Stefan could spare no time to be angry, though. He needed to see Michael - the sooner the better.

He attempted to lever himself to a sitting position, an action that elicited a balk from his father. "Careless, foolish boy," he muttered, but he moved to assist.

Victor braced Stefan from the other side, working together to keep Stefan upright until his head cleared.

"Do you not remember that you, too, have been shot?" Anatoly asked pointedly. "Twice, I might add. We need to let good Victor here earn his keep before the night is out."

Stefan merely gritted his teeth, ignoring the words of concern. "I just need to see him for myself."

Anatoly drew a frustrated breath, blowing it out slowly. "You are hurt, stoipah."

"He is stable," Victor said from the other side. "Anatoly, please, this may be his only chance."

Victor had a heart, and Stefan knew that somewhere beneath the coarse exterior, his father did, too. Stunted and blackened, beating to a rhythm of revenge and selfishness, but if Michael was dying, this was not something he would deny his only son.

When Anatoly nodded, relenting, it was not the comfort Stefan might have hoped. Anatoly believed it, too, even despite his lies. Anatoly believed Michael might die.

That was all the motivation Stefan needed to overcome his pain and weakness. He had not worked so hard to get Michael free, just so he could die alone.

Shakily, he pushed to his feet, well braced for the wave of vertigo that swept over him. It passed after a long moment, and when Stefan blinked away the remnants of it, he was able to refocus on the thing that mattered: Michael.

Standing, he could see now why Victor was so resigned, why his father was so bent on his lies. Michael almost looked dead already, paler than before, features drawn and tired.

After everything that had happened, as far as they'd run and as much as they survived, it seemed incomprehensible to Stefan to be here, in his father's house, relying on the graces of a man he'd grown to despise. This was the family he'd brought Michael into, with hired guns who thought nothing of decapitating a body before disposing of it. With makeshift ERs on carts and doctors held against their will to treat.

Stefan felt a pang of guilt for pushing Michael into this, for making Michael believe. But if that meant anything, it only meant that now, more than ever, Stefan had to keep believing in it. He couldn't lead Michael so far just to abandon him now.

With that resolve, Stefan tried to walk. It was a lurching gait, keeping the pressure off his of injured leg. His father stood by him, supporting him, and it was a solidarity he hadn't felt in years, since before Lukas had died.

It was a funny thing, that trust. But sometimes, family was all there was. Not just the kind that paid lip service, but the kind that stood by, no matter what.

This was a no matter what. Anatoly was still here, even after Stefan's rough insistence that they both perpetuate the lie. Anatoly was still here, doing everything he could to save Stefan's life, to protect Stefan, even when he didn't want it. Even killers had hearts. Stefan should know.

It took longer than Stefan liked to get there, but when he finally made it to Michael's bed, it was worth the effort. He adjusted himself, finding his own footing. His father released him, but stood close, unwilling to relinquish his place even for the sake of privacy. Victor moved around to the other side, eyeing Stefan closely before adjusting the IV out of Michael's arm.

For a moment, Stefan only watched. It was something he'd done often since breaking Michael out. Watching him, just staring whenever he could. It had been so surreal, thinking he'd found Lukas. Even now that Lukas was gone - especially now - Stefan needed to remind himself that Michael was still real, that Michael was still with him. Stefan had survived losing Lukas, but only with delusions and revenge to tide him over. He was not so certain he could survive losing Michael.

"How is he?" Stefan asked quietly. It was work to balance on one leg, but the painkillers he'd been given were keeping his injured leg numb, even if uncomfortably so.

Victor hesitated, glancing at Anatoly as if for permission.

"Tell me how he is," Stefan said again, harsher this time. "I swear to God, I will kill you myself."

Victor looked back at Stefan, surprised for a moment, but it faded quickly. Then he sighed, shaking his head with a curse. "All the same, the lot of you. But I will tell it to you straight, just like you want. Killing me will not help him, and it will not save his life. You see, the bullet did much damage," he said. He pointed to his own chest. "Punctured the lung, damaged the muscles. Even with the transfusions, the blood loss is significant. He's already running a fever, as you can tell, and considering the damage already done, I wouldn't be surprised if it's more than his body can take. I can't even say if I got all the bleeders inside of him. This is no place for such operations, but I did the best I could."

Stefan could not doubt that. Even if Victor was prone to drunkenness, he would not have survived as an ally of Anatoly if he were not skilled in some way. The fact that he was old and still alive boded in the doctor's favor, but spoke poorly of Michael's condition.

He wanted to be mad at the doctor, Stefan truly did. It was Victor's hand that they were trusting here, and Stefan could see it shake, even now. He even wanted to be mad at his father, for not allowing Michael to go to a hospital, like Victor had wanted.

But even with Jericho dead, Michael would not be safe in that place. Victor had done all he could, and his father had not broken his promise. Stefan just had to believe, not in anything he could do, but in Michael. Michael always surprised him. Michael was strong, even in his naivete, he was strong. And not just because he could kill people, but because he had the power and knew how not to use it. He was strong enough to see a chance to save a life and take it, even at the expense of his own.

And yet - seeing him lying there, Stefan saw him for the child he was. Eyes closed, the keen intelligence in his countenance was so easily swept away, replaced by a youthful innocence. He was lying here because Stefan had pulled him out. Stefan had taken him, not quite against his will, but it had never been Michael's idea. None of it had been Michael's idea, until he'd jumped in front of a bullet meant for Stefan.

It was a hard thing to think about, that Michael would have been safer back in Jericho's institute. He wouldn't be lying there, pale, half-dead, without even the prayer from a has-been doctor perilously on the good side of the mob. If Michael had never met Stefan, he wouldn't have had to jump in front of bullets. He wouldn't have had to lay his life down for someone else.

And still - it was hard to regret breaking him out.

Stefan felt lightheaded for a moment, and he braced himself against the bed. He put his hand heavily on Michael's forehead, and squeezed his eyes closed. He always longed for such contact, such physical reminders that Michael was real, that Stefan's ten-year search was over.

It wasn't much comfort now. Michael was running a fever, just like Victor had said, sweat-slick beneath his bangs and it was all Stefan could do to keep himself upright and composed.

He let his hand trail down, resting it at the nape of Michael's neck. He could feel the hot pulse there, fast and uneven. Stefan knew Michael was amazing, he knew Michael could do almost anything, but he couldn't be sure that Michael could do this. Even miracle healing couldn't fix the impossible. There was no way to know how much Michael's body could handle; anyone else would have died by now, and yet the fever burned and Michael didn't move. Lying so still, he didn't look superhuman. He just looked young.

It was Stefan's fault. It was. "I'm sorry," he whispered, his throat tight. He kept his eyes on Michael, locked on the pale eyelids and dark lashes, purposefully ignoring the doctor and his father. They were a part of this, Stefan knew, but not the most important part. "I pulled you out to save you, not the other way around."

But that was a lie, and Stefan knew it the moment he said it. He'd devoted most of his life to finding Lukas, to save Lukas, but it'd always been about saving himself, too. Lukas had died on that beach, but so had he in all the ways that mattered. Finding Lukas - finding Michael - had saved Stefan, maybe even more than it had saved the boy.

Michael wouldn't admit it, but Stefan still knew. Michael didn't regret being broken out. He wouldn't even regret lying in the bed. Theoretically, this was still better than being locked up, trained to be a killer. Because Michael knew as well as Stefan that when he wasn't able to kill, he would be killed, and he'd have died in some laboratory, never to be heard of again, never even to be missed.

He'd be missed now. Stefan already missed him, the dark scowl on his face, the serene look when he was petting Zilla. The keenness in his eyes when he was thinking about something, the eagerness with which he learned anything.

Sometimes Michael seemed invincible. When he could disable someone with a thought, when he could read advanced science books and readily discern the meaning.

And then other times - times like now - he just seemed so vulnerable. Squeezing Stefan's hand in the doctor's office. Blushing awkwardly from the attention of a pretty girl. Lighting up at the chance to do something normal.

Laying with a tube down his throat in a beach house, still and colorless.

Stefan's eyes burned and he felt himself tremble. The idea that Michael could die was so hard to take, so hard to believe. He couldn't lose Michael now. He couldn't lose Michael ever. Not after all he'd done to get him out, not after everything they'd been through to make Michael believe the most beautiful lie of all.

Stefan pulled his hand away, teetering on his feet slightly. Michael's face blurred in front of him and Stefan's ears began to ring as his consciousness threatened to ebb away.

There was an arm around him, steadying and sure. "Easy, easy," Anatoly's voice was close to his ear. Then his father's voice lowered, coming out in a hiss. "Victor, we need to help him now."

Stefan was being turned now, walked back to the bed, even as his legs were giving way. As his body gave up on him, he was hoisted into the air, carried easily the last few feet and deposited on the bed gently and efficiently.

Stefan wanted to open his eyes, to see what was happening, but his strength had left him. The voices were increasingly distant, low rumbles that didn't mean what they used to, didn't mean anything at all. Somewhere he could still hear the sound of Michael's heart monitor, the hiss and whir of the ventilator, and that was all he needed as he surrendered to unconsciousness once more.

-o-

Stefan slept.

It was a long and heavy sleep, the kind he wasn't prone to. Sleep just filled time, wasted time that he could use looking for Lukas. It was a necessary evil, like so much of his life. Only, in sleep, he was vulnerable to the memories, too often taken by dreams.

They were good dreams sometimes, memories of Lukas. Spending days together in the house, playing games or just driving each other crazy. Dreams of coming home from camp to be greeted with hugs and stories, Lukas talking so quickly that Stefan had to remind him to breathe before the kid passed out.

Other times, they were bad. Memories of the night Lukas died, the feeling of loss and desperation as Lukas fell into the water, his small, limp hand upturned on the sand.

Stefan dreamed of it all this time. The good and the bad, pleasant and painful. Lukas' smile, bright and welcoming, the world reflected in his bicolored eyes. Young and innocent, perfect and precious - his Lukas. There, in the place beyond sleep, Lukas was still so real, so vibrant, so alive. Stefan could almost touch him, almost feel him, like Lukas had never disappeared at all.

Only now, the dream took another turn, one he had made himself forget for ten years. Now he dreamed of the little body in his father's arms. The blonde hair peeking out from the blanket. The pale, blue features set in death, eyes never to open again. He dreamed of the funeral, private and quiet, no one but Anatoly and his closest men there to bury Lukas in a plot next to their mother.

There was no gravestone and there would never be a gravestone. Lukas died for nothing and he would be remembered as a lost child only. It was a tragedy, a fate so unbefitting for a little boy, a legacy so unintended for a child who had brought so much light to everyone around him.

But Stefan would always remember.

Stefan had never been there, for the funeral. He had never buried Lukas at all, physically or emotionally. But in the dream, in this dream, he was there, saw it all like he'd known it all along.

The sun was shining, high in the sky, warm and bright. The air was alive and fresh, cool with a breeze off the water. The family's burial grounds were as opulent as their living quarters, homes for the dead that still had a view of the water, for whatever that was worth.

Stefan was younger again, no more than fourteen, as he stood by his father's side. Anatoly was still larger than life, tailored neatly in a crisp black suit, shirt buttoned to the hilt even in the Florida sun. His father had no expression on his face, features carefully guarded, but Stefan could feel the emotions rolling off him, crashing over him like an unsettled surf on the rocks.

There was a casket, small and polished. It glinted in the sunlight, looking sleek and simple as two men lowered it in the ground. The men worked in silence, faces taut and movements stiff, because they understood what this meant. Even if Lukas was not their child, he was still very much their kin, and anyone who had ever met Lukas understood how wrong this was.

Except it wasn't wrong. It was right. The last ten years of denial had been the fantasy, the wayward dreams of a broken boy, and this was reality, so painful, so clear, that Stefan shook, goosebumps on his arms even in the throes of the dream.

It was almost over. The casket was lowered into the ground, and Stefan felt his heart lodge in his throat. But Anatoly stopped the men, taking a shovel in his own hands. He was above such manual work, but the men didn't question, didn't have to question. The pair simply departed, quiet and respectful, leaving Stefan alone with Anatoly and the casket.

It was time, Stefan knew. Time to bury Lukas.

The closure he'd never had. The goodbye he'd never said. The acceptance he'd always rejected. It was in front of him now, stark and unavoidable, and as much as he wanted to run, his legs kept him planted on the ground.

Even in the dream, Stefan cried, long and hard, sobbing next to the open grave. Anatoly was burying it now, shovel full after shovel full, long, hard work, and Stefan understood why now. Why this mattered. Love wasn't holding on too tightly. Love was trusting enough to know when to let go.

Anatoly was letting go. Anatoly was burying his son. Not forgetting, but accepting. Anatoly had no denials, had no memorials. He only had the raw grief that even a thirst for blood could never quench. Anatoly's way of coping was not perfect, but it was his, and Stefan saw for the first time; saw the way the grief broke his father, not with tears or delusions, but with a loss of light and hope that would mark him forever.

Stefan still stood, legs shaking, and took a shovel of his own. His hands felt numb, almost disconnected from his body, but he worked nonetheless. This was something he had to do, something he should have done ten years ago. The dirt was heavy, each shovel-full worse than the last. It hurt, the muscles in his arms, his back, his chest. It hurt deep within, breaking his heart a little more with every movement.

His father bent over, ran his hands through the dirt and picked up a handful, squeezing it between his fingers. "For you, my son. Their blood shall be yours."

A promise, a vengeance; violence begat violence, and even now Stefan could understand the justice of his father's words. Because Lukas' blood was innocence. His life pure. That someone had taken it, accidental or not, was a crime that no courtroom could rectify.

But Stefan had no such anger. He could hold no such grudge. Not anymore. Lukas' legacy never should have been a trail of death and destruction. It should have been hope and light. Lukas was better than this life, and it was suddenly hard to imagine the trail of bodies that would have made Lukas cry, all killed on account of him.

Lukas never hurt anyone. He never would want to, even if he could. Lukas was light in the darkness, beauty in an ugly world. And the hardest part was that Anatoly wasn't the only one who forgot that, Stefan had, too.

Anatoly killed all his enemies, got his revenge.

Stefan killed every piece of joy in his life, and got his absolution.

Lukas wanted neither.

Lukas just wanted a happy life, a place where he could ride Annie into the ocean and laugh and laugh until the morning came.

Stefan wouldn't find that here, not in the dirt, especially not in the little casket beneath the ground. He wouldn't find it in his father's vengeance and he wouldn't find it in his own guilt. It just wasn't here, and it never had been, the illusion of it almost more damaging than the loss itself.

Staying here would kill him, just as surely as Lukas was already dead. So Stefan closed his eyes, let himself drift away. It was his only escape, fleeting and transcendent.

And like that, he was gone. Away from the cemetery, away from the weight of dirt as he buried his brother. He melted into the sunlight, letting it take him far from the green grasses and bleak gravestones. For a moment, he drifted like that, effused into the air, until his sense of touch returned.

To something familiar, something true. Coarse hair in his grip, a strong back beneath him. The restless twitching horse barely held at bay.

Harry.

It had been years since he'd been there, but the memory was so visceral that it seemed like only yesterday. With a deep breath, Stefan smelled ocean air, heard the surf on the shore, and he opened his eyes.

Harry was trotting now at an easy pace, hooves buried in the sand, water lapping toward them gently. Ahead of them, Lukas was perched on Annie, riding gracefully and freely, and Stefan could hear him laughing. This was how he wanted to remember Lukas, just like this, in these moments of happiness and freedom. When there was no mob, no secrets; just two brothers, sharing life as they were meant to.

But when they crested the hill, the fading sunlight was so bright across the water that it was hard to see. Stefan tried to go faster, but Lukas just pushed Annie harder, breaking her into a run. Together, Lukas and Annie danced together along the water, pulling farther and farther ahead. Somewhere, Stefan heard his voice, "Come on, brother! I'm waiting for you still!"

And Stefan moved to answer, but the sunlight was blinding now, bright and warm and encompassing, almost like a mother's embrace and Stefan could not find his way.

He heard Lukas laugh, fading and far away, and then there was no trace of his brother. Lukas was gone.

The loss was palpable, even in the essence of the dream. Nothing would replace it. But then, nothing ever had to.

From somewhere behind, Stefan heard another voice. This one older, more cynical. "I thought you said you would wait for me."

Stefan glanced back, and there was another figure. A blonde boy on a horse, sitting erect and stiff, as if he'd never been on one before. Michael.

There was a choice, to follow or to stay. Chase a ghost or stay with a family he'd made.

The light was tempting, as was the promise of seeing Lukas again. Knowing his brother again, being with him like when they were younger.

But he'd be there. He'd always be there.

Sometimes even the right choices hurt.

Sometimes letting go meant gaining everything.

Stefan twined his fingers into Harry's mane with new vigor, turning him back, away from the light. As he squeezed his thighs, urging Harry back toward Michael, he heard Lukas laugh, crystal clear and light, once last time before the sun disappeared below the horizon once and for all.

-o-

When he woke, it was morning. Daylight streamed through the windows, which were open to the ocean. A light breezed teased the white curtains, which danced in the sunlight in an easy, unpredictable cadence.

It was a beautiful, peaceful sort of thing. Even with the violence that made this life possible, Stefan had always known to appreciate the refuges of life. He had always liked the ocean. Lukas had, too. There had been something about it, something freeing, even in their gated lives. The vastness of the ocean, the way a breeze could trail in from nowhere and disappear off into the world with nothing more than a memory.

For a moment, Stefan took that for what it was. Peace. Refuge. Freedom.

But then he remembered with painful clarity - Jericho on the beach, reliving Lukas' death, his father's last minute rescue, Michael bleeding out-

Michael.

The thought of the younger boy made him lurch back to full awareness, and he jackknifed in the bed, regretting it immediately. Pain cut through him sharply, darkening his vision and he gaped a wordless scream, fingers reaching out in vain to assuage the sudden throbbing of his leg.

"You're trying to undo all of Victor's hard work already," Anatoly said, his voice drenched with disappointment.

When Stefan looked up, though, his father looked like he had expected as much. Easing himself back, Stefan locked his jaw to keep the pain at bay. "A few stitches," he said, trying to sound nonchalant.

Anatoly's face registered bland amusement. He looked weary there, sitting in a desk chair pulled up to Stefan's bedside. His shirt was unbuttoned at the top, his jacket gone altogether. There were still bloodstains on it, and given his rumpled hair, it occurred to Stefan that his father had not left the room all night.

"A few stitches," Anatoly said musingly. "Major reconstructive surgery on your thigh bone. It was quite tricky. We are lucky that Victor spent years as an orthopedic surgeon or you may have been stuck with a limp."

The severity of it shocked him, and Stefan looked blankly at his leg. It was swathed with bandages and seemed to radiate with warmth. It made sense, he knew, because he'd felt the bone shatter, but hearing the extent of the repair work was numbing.

Anatoly sighed, running a hand through his hair. "You make me feel old," he said wistfully, but he smiled. "You feel better, though, yes?"

Stefan sat up slower this time, feeling his body out experimentally. He nodded. "Yeah," he said. "I do. Was I out all night?"

Anatoly quirked a hairy eyebrow. "Two nights," he said. "Victor thought it best if we keep you sedated. It's been over a day."

The timing took a moment to make sense of, and when Stefan realized what it meant, he felt his chest seize up with a fresh wave of panic. If it had been over a day, then where was Michael?

Anatoly laughed, more than somewhat tired. "Michael is fine," he said. "More than fine. Surprising thing, that one. Victor can't explain it and I haven't seen anything like it. Not even twenty-four hours out, and he'd made a complete turnaround. From death's door to sitting up and asking for a candy bar."

It was almost too much to process. Michael was at death's door, Michael was asking for sugar, Michael was... "He's okay?" Stefan asked again, trying to find the reassurance he couldn't quite believe.

"Better than you," Anatoly said. His eyes flicked toward the door. "Isn't that right, my boy?"

Stefan swiveled his head, seeing a shock of blonde hair peeking around the corner of the doorway. After a moment, Michael stepped into view, a little tentative, but standing upright, with no indication that he'd ever been hurt at all.

Michael hesitated, a smile twitching on his lips. "I'm fine," he said. "I tried to explain to the doctor that I simply have a great deal of luck when it comes to injuries."

Stefan almost wanted to laugh. A smile split his face so hard that tears almost came to his eyes. The last time he'd seen Michael, it had been with the possibility of saying goodbye. But, there he was, standing there, looking no worse for wear.

Anatoly cleared his throat. "Very lucky," he agreed, though the skepticism was evident in his voice. He knew better than to give voice to it. "I have tried to convince him that you have never been quite so lucky and would simply need a few days. The boy has been hard pressed to leave, haven't you, Misha?"

Stefan recognized the nickname, and even if it sounded forced on his father's lips, he appreciated its significance. Even in Stefan's unconsciousness, Anatoly had lived up to his end of the bargain.

Michael took another step inside, looking at his feet. "Anatoly has been quite hospitable," he said. He glanced up at Stefan, almost nervously. "And Peter plays a decent game of chess, but I do think Gregor could use some work."

Stefan had to smile. They were both trying: Anatoly to embrace Michael, and Michael to fit in. They were trying, and not quite succeeding, but definitely not failing.

"Just wait until you play Anatoly," Stefan said, with as much ease as he could muster. "Taught me everything I know."

Michael looked thoughtful. "And that's supposed to impress me?"

Anatoly laughed at that, pushing himself to his feet. He patted Stefan on the shoulder, shaking his head. "I will leave you two to catch up," he said. "Then, later, you and I will talk."

His gaze lingered on Stefan's purposefully for a moment, and Stefan understood.

Then Anatoly laughed again, moving toward the door. He paused next to Michael. "And you, young one. We have a date for chess, yes?"

Michael offered him a small, half-smile. "Yeah, sure," he said.

With that, Anatoly left, and Stefan let out a breath, smiling widely at Michael. "So, the miracle genes pulling overtime," he said. "You sure you're okay?"

Michael moved closer. "You worry too much." He lifted his shirt, showing his chest. There was a rippled scar on his ribcage, red and puckered. It looked like it still hurt, but considering what it had been, Stefan knew it was a miracle.

Michael lowered his shirt. "Like Anatoly said, I'm fine."

Stefan shrugged. "I'm a big brother," he said, settling himself back against the pillows. "Worrying is part of my job."

Michael lifted his head at that, meeting Stefan's eyes hopefully. "You worried me, too," he said, almost suddenly, as if it surprised him.

Stefan didn't like the thought of worrying Michael - it went against his desire to protect him - but it made sense. "That's the way it works, being brothers," he explained.

Michael seemed to consider that, nodding thoughtfully. "You know, just because I jumped in front of you, that doesn't mean I remember."

Stefan paused at that. There was no way Michael could remember - the memories weren't his. "So what changed your mind?"

Michael's brow furrowed, his mouth pulling into a frown. "You were going to die for me," he said, and there was something of awe in his voice as he looked up at Stefan again. "Right there on the beach, you were going to die for me."

Stefan remembered, he remembered well. He remembered the sand, the sharp grass. He remembered the feel of Jericho's gun pressed between his eyes, the way his heart had skipped a beat, his only hope that Michael would get away.

Michael cocked his head, analytical and vulnerable all at once. "Part of me knows logically that you are probably mistaken. But in all the movies, all the books, I have heard that the love of family can be one of the most overpowering sensations. Seeing you, on the beach, ready to die for me, it was a feeling I'd never had. The desire to protect you - it was greater than anything else I'd ever known. Family is something you're willing to die for, and when I was willing to die for you, I knew it must be true. Somehow, despite all logic, you and me - we must be brothers." He paused, eyes going wider for a moment, filled with need. "We are brothers, aren't we, Stefan?"

The question was innocent, hopeful and yearning. Like a small child searching for reassurance from his parents.

And Stefan had a choice. Lying to Michael was hard - he did not relish it. But it wouldn't be a lie. Not when Stefan believed it like he did, not when Michael believed it like he did. Maybe family was more than blood, maybe it was more than memories and stories. Maybe it was this, right here. The connection that neither one of them could deny, that they couldn't explain.

Stefan nodded, resolved and unwavering. "Yes," he said. "We are brothers. Misha, you and I - we're brothers."

The conviction in his voice was strong, steady, and even though every part of him ached, it all dissipated as Stefan watched the tension ease from Michael's face. The fear, the doubt, the uncertainty - it all melted and showed Michael for what he was: just a boy, a younger brother. My Misha.

Stefan grinned, unable to hold it in. "Now, are you sure you didn't stick around because you needed a source for your sugar addiction?"

Michael blushed, lips quirked into a smile. "Well, that certainly didn't hurt," he said. He regarded the room with vague interest. "Anatoly is quite generous. I wasn't sure if it was appropriate to eat so much of his food considering how he finances it, but he had Three Musketeers."

Stefan snickered. "You're already compromising your morals over candy," he said. "If only Jericho had known it was that easy."

Michael flinched slightly at the sound of his name.

Stefan regretted his words, his smile fading. "He's gone," he promised. "He won't find you again."

Michael nodded, but there were still traces of fear. "There were others," he said. "They will still look for me."

Stefan knew that. He'd been so preoccupied with getting Jericho off their asses, that he hadn't thought about anything else. But it was all more complicated than he thought - Michael was more complicated than he'd thought. And if getting Michael out had been hard, keeping him safe was going to be a lifelong goal. "So we pick a place to hide. Plush beach houses aren't the only way to live."

Michael didn't look as certain. "But your father-" he cut off, swallowing hard. "Our father-"

"Has enough hiding places in the world for him and for us," Stefan said.

Michael was still not convinced.

Stefan kept his gaze earnest. "We don't even need one of his, though," he said. "We just need a little money, a few ins, and we'll make our own way."

Michael's mouth opened, then closed. "But. How can you be sure?"

"Aw, come on, Butch," Stefan cajoled. The kid just needed a push, and Stefan had taken him this far, he had to believe they could go the rest of he way. "Aren't you ready to jump off that cliff?"

The reference was not lost on Michael, who smiled, eyes twinkling. "Butch and Sundance died in the end."

"We don't know that for sure," Stefan countered.

The innocence faded into an analytic stare. "It was implied by the-"

Stefan groaned. He had no doubt that Michael could psychoanalyze the characters, explore the filmmaker's motivation, and explain the acute cultural response to the film. That was what Michael could do. Explain something away until it lost its magic. "You're missing the point," he said.

Michael stopped, almost surprised. "The point?"

"It's not about the ending," Stefan said. He sat up a little, looking keenly at Michael. He needed Michael to understand. "It's about the possibility. We never see them die. We just know how awesome they are together. We believe in that, even when it goes against logic."

Michael seemed to consider that, the thoughts plainly evident in his bi-colored eyes. Then finally, he nodded. "So we jump then?" he asked.

Stefan had to smile. Reason had given way to emotion, to trust, to family. "You think you can handle it?"

Michael returned the smile, teenage confidence swelling in him. "In theory."

Stefan chuckled. "Let's make it a reality."

Michael nodded. He shifted on his feet, rubbing absently at his neck. "Well, I suppose I can live with that."

"You suppose?" Stefan asked, mockingly indignant.

Michael's response was confidence and warm. "Well, at least I can count on the fact that your feet will hit first."

Stefan snickered, shaking his head, relishing the feeling of familiarity, the resonant quality of being connected. "Little brothers never change."

"I hope big brothers never do either," Michael added, and Stefan knew he was feeling it, too.

"Don't worry," Stefan said, and it was a promise. One he'd made the night he'd broken Michael out and one he wouldn't break for as long as he lived. Which, if Anatoly had anything to say about it, would be a very, very long time. "I've got a lifetime to prove it to you. And I'll buy you all the chocolate you need until you believe it."

"I've never been to Bolivia," Michael said and there was something naive in his voice. Something hopeful. Something of starting over, something of giving in. Something of acceptance. Something of family.

Stefan laughed, happiness swelling in him. This was what he'd fought for. This was what he'd sacrificed so much for. This feeling, this completion. And even with his throbbing leg, his numb shoulder, he'd never felt better. There would be more trials, he knew. His own recovery was likely to be painful and long, and running to Bolivia would not be a picnic. But they were changes Stefan couldn't dread, didn't know how to dread - not with Michael by his side.

"Neither have I," he said to Michael. "But I hear it's pretty nice. In theory anyway."

Michael grinned, looking just like the teenager he should be, even rolling his eyes, just for effect. As if Stefan needed any more reminders as to what he'd just gotten himself into. "I think I'm getting pretty tired of theories," Michael said.

Whatever it was, whatever the future held, Stefan didn't regret. Not one minute of it, not anything about it. He had his brother, and he didn't need anything else.

"You and me both, little brother," Stefan said, and he let his body relax, eyes still holding Michael's. "You and me both."

end