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Author's Chapter Notes:
Against my better judgement, I'm starting a WIP. Will probably max at about 5-6 chapters. We'll see.
Day 0 (Exoneration Day)
Sara had been resolute: if Michael’s plan worked, if he truly was exonerated and they found themselves free from this nightmare, they weren’t running. Starting fresh didn’t have to mean starting over. Mike would go home to his familiar bed, to his school, his friends. The house was hers, paid for and in her name, she told Michael, a hint of pride in the jut of her chin. Her eyes had held his: the effort she’d put into making a life for their son there was hers, too, and should have been Michael’s…theirs to share. He’d have that back, she said. He’d get it all back; they both would.

Lincoln picked him up and drove him to Ithaca. In the dark car, it was easier to decompress. He ran down the events of the past few hours for his brother, stumbling over Whip’s death, swallowing hard to choke that sorrow down. As they neared the city, he leaned his head back against the seat rest, pinching his eyes shut. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever been this tired. His back stung from the blows Posei...Jacob...had delivered; he was likely bleeding through his shirt onto the tan upholstery of the rented sedan. With a grunt, he forced himself forward as they eased off the highway. Forced his thoughts to follow the curve of the road toward Sara’s neighborhood.

He knew the address, of course. He’d already known the house was in Sara’s name; she’d bought it after her inheritance from her father had come in. Mike had been fourteen months old. That had been a good day for Michael, following the paper trail from afar. He’d been able to breathe easier, just a bit, knowing Sara could support their son without struggle.

Lincoln slowed as they moved into residential streets, and Michael fought back the part of his brain playing the memory of Mike yelling into the phone, calling Jacob ‘dad’, on repeat. How much damage had that man managed to inflict in these final hours? Lincoln pulled up to the curb, and Michael stared at the house, resolutely averting his eyes from the drain he knew harbored all his messages to his wife. Downstairs, lights glowed in what had to be the entry and the kitchen. Upstairs, one window shone yellow, the rest dark. “Be real with me,” Michael said. “What am I walking into? When you and Sara found him, how was he?”

Lincoln cut the engine and juggled the rental key in his hands. “He was fine, man. Not a scratch.” Michael frowned at his brother, who gave in with a sigh. “Jacob told him you were an imposter, that his real dad had died years ago.”
Michael let out a breath through his nose. “Okay.” He could deal with that.
“And…that his mother had been killed, too. Luckily we found him pretty quick after that. Set it right.”

“He told Mike…Sara…was…dead?”

“He’s fucked up, man.”

Michael just stared at Lincoln, feeling his blood literally crash through his veins. Could his heart actually explode with rage? He stared at Lincoln, suddenly seeing him through the diamond slats of the Sona fence, vision blurring with grief. Being told the person you loved most in this world was dead…he wouldn’t wish that feeling on his worst enemy. To think Jacob had told Mike, a child…Michael cried out suddenly, smashing a fist into the dashboard. “God damn him!”

Lincoln grasped his shoulder, then let go when Michael winced. “Listen. You’ve got to get your head on straight, alright? He’s upset, but he needs you, you know? He’s gonna need to see you’re…I don’t know, you.”

Michael spoke through gritted teeth. “And how am I supposed to do that? He doesn’t even know me.”

Lincoln huffed at this. “You really think Sara would let Mike grow up not knowing you?” Michael just stared at him. “All his life, Mike has thought of you as, I don’t know man, some type of mythological being. A superhero.”

“You’re not serious.”

“The hell I’m not.” Lincoln laughed, a gruff sound heavy with irony. “I actually used to feel sorry for him, can you believe that?”

“Who? Mike?”

The smile twisted on Lincoln’s face, like he’d smelled something that made him nauseous. “No, man. Jacob. Always coming in second in a two-man race. And not just with Mike. With Sara, too.”

Michael winced again. “I don’t know if I need to hear...“

“Mike reveres you, ok? That’s what you need to know. He reveres you because Sara loves you, and has never let you go, and that’s what you’re walking into.”

****

Michael wasn’t sure what he expected when they stepped through the entry, but it wasn’t this: complete stillness, followed by the sound of crying”the gasping, hiccuping-type”coming from up the staircase.

“Mike,” Linc said, and they took the stairs two at a time, bursting onto the upper level landing breathless. Because that was the world they lived in, Michael supposed, and probably always would. A world where the worst is always possible.

“Sara?” Lincoln called, leading the way toward Mike’s room. They rushed down a hallway, framed photos lining the walls. Michael nearly tripped over a soccer ball, then a basket of laundry.

“In here,” Sara called, and Michael exhaled in relief. At Mike’s doorway, he paused. Sara looked up from Mike’s twin bed. She’d evidently tried to rise to greet them but had only managed to get part way to her feet; Mike gripped her arm tightly.

“Hey,” she said softly, smiling at the sight of them in the doorway. The dark bruise above her cheek had faded to a mustard yellow. Her eyes shone as they connected with Michael’s. Mike’s eyes, equally shiny, with tears, followed his mother’s gaze. He didn’t look frightened, exactly, but didn’t release his hold on Sara, either.

“He can’t sleep,” Sara said quietly. She looked exhausted.

Lincoln moved into the room. “Let me,” he told Sara. “Hey, Mikey. You’re okay, kiddo.” He sat down on the bed with them. Mike reached for him with his free hand. “I’ll sit right here, and you can close your eyes. How ‘bout that?”

Envy threatened to swallow Michael. Lincoln had some sort of all-access pass, while he couldn’t seem to move from this doorway. Sara attempted to unwind Mike’s arms from her neck. She kissed his forehead, leaning in to whisper to him. “Uncle Lincoln will be right here. Just…give Mom a minute. Just one minute. I’ll be back.”

“No! No…” She pulled herself from his grasp, and he rose to his knees on the bed, crying harder, reaching for her and grasping for her shirt. Sara looked at Michael desperately as Lincoln tried to draw a rigid Mike back.

Michael couldn’t stand it. “Don’t leave him,” he heard himself say. “Stay with him.”

Sara hesitated, and Mike took the opportunity to re-wrap his arms around her waist. She cast a defeated look at Michael, and he looked miserably back at her. Lincoln just looked overwhelmed. “I’ll be downstairs,” he said gruffly. “Washing up.”

He moved past Michael in the doorway, clapping a hand to his shoulder, gently this time, as he departed. Sara resettled Mike back in bed, and lay down beside him with a sigh. He curled around her, head on her chest. His small hands gripped his blanket tightly. Star Wars, matching the pillowcase Sara’s head rested on.

“Are you…mad…at me…Mom?” Each small word a gasping breath.

“No, no. No one’s mad at you, baby.” She ran a hand over the crown of his head, but Mike turned and looked over Sara’s shoulder at Michael. He tried to make his head shake in the negative. No, he wasn’t mad. How could he think that? Sara shifted on one elbow to follow Mike’s gaze. “No one’s mad at you,” she said again, her eyes on Michael. He could guess how he looked to both of them: broken. Tortured. Uncertain. Don’t leave us, she mouthed.

He leaned his back to the doorframe, felt an acute pain between his shoulder blades, and sank down to the floor, settling there to wait for Mike’s eyes to close, for his shuddering breaths to slow to an even rhythm. After he’d been still for a good while, Sara’s arm extended and her hand reached out in invitation. Michael crossed the room quietly and sank down again with his back to the mattress, grasping her hand in both of his. He brought her knuckles to his lips and kissed them. Her thumb lightly traced his mouth, then his jaw, his ear. She massaged his neck where his collar stood stiff with sweat and probably blood and grime.

“What have I done to him?” he whispered. “Have I given him nightmares? What?”

Sara’s voice floated over his head. “You gave him me,” she said slowly. “All these years. That’s what you did for him. For us.”

After a while, her hand stilled, and when he looked up over the bed again, she was sleeping too, her other arm draped over their son. He let his head sink back against the mattress and closed his eyes for the first time in days.
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