Helena took the seat next to the four poster bed. In the last year,this had become her daily vigil. On the bed lay her once vibrantlyhealthy son. Perfectly still. Glassy eyed and pale. Unblinking. Morehelpless than a newborn babe.
She reached over and with a finger, smoothed back a lock of hisgolden brown hair. He was beautiful in his own way. When he wasn'tdefying her, and it had been a year since he had had the strength tolift a finger against her. And in that year, a kind of fondness forhim had taken root and grown.
Helena trailed a fingernail down his cheek. "My sweet sweet, Stefan,"She purred. "It is a shame it took this grave illness to bring ustogether. It was sheer luck that I found you in Milan, clinging tolife by a thread. But I have hope that all my efforts to save youwill not be in vain. That you will come back to me..." She brushedhis goatee with the tips of her fingers. "Strong," A finger acrosshis lips. "Loyal." and then her palm slid down his chest. She leanedand whispered in his ear. "And ready to rule at my side."
She withdrew her hand reluctantly. It was odd how drawn she was tohim now that he was helpless. When he was a child, she avoidedtouching him in tenderness. Now she had to force herself to stopstroking him. Was it a side effect of the months of waiting andpreparation? Perhaps it was old age, or the promise of a bond withher youngest son. With Stavros dead, Stefan was her final hope.
"Cesar thinks you are ready to be revived. I wish..." Her eyessearched his face, his eyes. "You would give me a sign. To tell meyou are ready to join me. Any small sign." She waited several beatsbut there was no response. "Cesar tried to warn me you could notcommunicate. I had hoped..." Her breath caught in her throat. Had sheimagined his blink? But there it was again, another blink. Her facebroke into a triumphant smile. "It won't be long, my love. It won'tbe long." She rose and bent over the bed, kissing his lips beforeleaving to find Faison.
Mother and son strolled the garden, her hand tucked safely in hisarm. While his gait was still stiff, he had regained most of hisstrength and color. Spying a perfect red rose hidden in the foliage,Stefan stepped into the garden, picked it and offered it to her, muchlike a lover would offer a favor. "Not nearly as perfect as you."
Helena breathed in the fragrance and slipped the rose from hisoutstretched palm. "Thank you, Darling. You are sweet to remember myfavorites."
"Always," He murmured, resuming their walk around the grounds. It waspeaceful to be with her, to love her. To bask in her approval. Hecouldn't remember a time in his life when he felt this content. "Youare easy to please, Mother."
Stefan was coming along marvelously, Helena mused as she let him doteon her. He was remarkably easy to manage. No hint of rebellion, onlya keen intelligence tempered by unwavering devotion to her. Cesar wasconvinced the experiment was a success and she had to agree. It wasan pleasant bonus that he had none of his older brother'simpulsiveness. Stefan almost seemed to anticipate her needs beforeshe voiced them. After decades of loathing him, she found itstrangely delightful to be in his presence and accept his adoration.Even six months ago, she could never have imagined it possible.
"What is on your mind, Mother?"
There it was a again, his keen intuition. Helena smiled up at him. "Iwas only thinking it was time to relocate. It has been quite sometime since Nikolas has seen you. He must miss you. And you him."
"You want to return to Port Charles..." Stefan seemed to consider itfor a moment. "They would arrest you." He looked down at her inconcern. "You are not suggesting I go alone?"
Helena squeezed his arm affectionately. "No, My Darling. I wouldn'tdream of it. Not after all the years we've lost. I'm afraid you arequite stuck with me."
Stefan relaxed and resumed walking again. "Then we will have to makearrangements to mask your presence until Nikolas is ready to acceptyou ...." His words trailed off as he set about solving the wrinklein the plan. "It is simple enough, I suppose."
"You have done a brilliant job weakening the Cassadine Empire whileletting Nikolas believe it is the poor economy and past mismanagementthat has left things in disarray." Helena watched her son's reactioncarefully. When she'd set him on the task, she hadn't told him why.She worried that his loyalty to Nikolas might supersede his loyaltyto her. It was a risk she had to take. She had to test his trust toknow the true mettle of it. "When we arrive in Port Charles, Nikolaswill accept you with open arms and plead for your help. You will bein perfect position to implement the final phase of the plan. Itwon't take more than a few months for us to gain complete control ofthe Cassadine Empire and Nikolas."
His response was all she could have hoped for. He merely smiledconspiratorially and replied, "And all will be as it should be."
Four Months later....
"My God, Uncle!" Nikolas pleaded, looking from Stefan to Helena.Tears glistened in the corners of his eyes. He still couldn't believeit. He was living a nightmare. All these past months he'd poured outall his hopes and fears to his uncle. And now to find out everythinghad been handed to Helena on a silver platter. Helena and Stefan hadcontrol of everything, the Cassadine estate, Cassadine Incorporated,Spoon Island, and him. He knew with grim certainty he wouldn't beallowed to escape. "What has she done to you? The uncle I've knownand loved all my life would never have done this to me. Never! Hewould never make me a prisoner."
"You are not a prisoner, Sweetheart," Helena corrected smoothly."There is no cell I would put you in, no chains for your arms andlegs. You are free to move about the island as you wish. But you aremy grandson, and you will learn to respect and obey me. That omissionin your rearing will be rectified."
Nikolas stared at Stefan dumbstruck. Why wasn't he stopping her?"What drugs did she give you, what does she have you on?"
Helena was getting annoyed. "Nikolas, you will stop these paranoidaccusations."
"Mother." Stefan interrupted quietly. His eyes never left his nephewas they engaged in a silent test of wills. He had to stop Nikolasbefore more damage was done, before he said something he couldn'ttake back. "I think it is time Nikolas and I spoke alone."
Helena's eyes narrowed. She didn't think she liked his tone. Foronce, she couldn't read Stefan, he was closed to her. Furthermore, hewas interfering in the scolding of her grandson. Was she losing herhold on Stefan? Nikolas was the weak link, Stefan's onevulnerability. All could be lost if he turned on her now. Not justthe Cassadine empire, but the love of her son. She found herselfcaring more for the latter. "Stefan." It was a struggle not to turnit into a plea.
He softened his voice, but still didn't take his eyes off his nephew."There is nothing to fear, Mother. All will be as I promised."
She had no choice but to trust him. It was a delicate moment, gettingNikolas to accept the new order of things. She hated it, but thetruth was Stefan stood a better chance of gaining Nikolas'sacceptance without her presence. "Very well, Darling. I will be inthe gardens when you are finished."
Nikolas waited until she left. "It's not too late," He whisperedurgently. "All we have to do is walk out of here. There's nothing shecan do to us if we're united against her. She loses her power.Please, Uncle. Come with me."
"No." This was supremely difficult, explaining his change of heart.Saying no to the young man he loved as a son. But this was best forall of them. Nikolas had to be made to understand where theircollective futures lay. "The Cassadines must stand united. All of us.You, me, Alexis... and Mother."
"How did she get to you?" Nikolas demanded. "You've never, once, beenher flunky! Why are you doing her bidding now?!"
"She saved my life," Stefan said simply, though he knew as soon as hesaid it that it wasn't that simple. The truth was much deeper and farreaching than that. "And she has given me a peace I never believedpossible. A sense of purpose."
"What are you talking about! You've always had a purpose!" His unclewas scaring him. "How is this peace if you've become Helena's robotand turned against me!"
"She would never ask me to do something I didn't want to do," Stefananswered mildly. "And I have not turned against you. No one couldmake me hurt you."
"And if she told you I had to die, would you kill me?"
"She would never ask it of me." Stefan watched Nikolas pace. "Forone, she adores you. This was all done for your benefit."
"For my benefit?" Nikolas exploded, "She had you set a trap for me!That's as good as signing my death warrant because I will never bowto her will."
"She will never harm you. She wants what we all want, a strong andunited Cassadine Family."
"This is insane, Uncle! How could you believe her! She a liar and amurderer! She kidnapped my brother, let us all believe he was dead,ordered Lucky to poison Lucas and kill his father. And those are justher most recent exploits. How... How can you trust anything thatamoral psychopath has to say?"
Stefan's expression darkened. "She is your grandmother and I will notallow you to insult her in my presence. Do you understand?" He tookNikolas's stunned silence as compliance. "As for her recent actions,I will concede her plan was ridiculous. I would never condone norparticipate in such a poorly thought out scheme. But it was borne ofa desperation to bring her family together and I cannot condemn herfor her intentions. She regrets the mistakes she's made andunderstands now she was wrong."
This was surreal, hearing his uncle explain away his grandmother'sinsanity. In a flash, the magnitude of what Helena had accomplishedhit home. She had programmed Stefan just as she programmed Lucky. Bycontrolling Stefan, she had created a perfect ally. It was asbrilliant as it was terrifying. She had to be stopped. His unclestill loved him, he could use that. "If you love me.... come with me,now. We can go to Kevin Collins. He can begin the deprogramming. It'sthe only way out for both of us."
Stefan's answer was immediate. "No. If this is programming, I have nodesire for it to be reversed." It was curious because he recognizedthat what Nikolas said had to be true. He knew his mother must haveordered Cesar to brainwash him to effect this radical of a change inhis thinking and behavior. It explained the months lost from hismemory. But instead of being horrified at the prospect of beingprogrammed, Stefan welcomed it. And by welcoming it, he controlledit, and to some degree, his mother.
Nikolas thought he was going to be sick. "How can you want to beunder her control?!"
"I am at peace. For the first time in my life, I have and loving andclose relationship with my mother. Why would I return to the agony ofbefore?" He wouldn't give it up, even if it meant losing Nikolas."You think my change of heart came about because of programming andthat is it one sided. I know it is much more complex than that. Ifthere is programming, then it flows both ways. Because Mother haschanged. I need no other proof than the fact that she has agreed toaccept Alexis."
It had been a turning point for them. Months ago, when they had firstreturned to Port Charles, he had encountered Alexis and had beenstruck with a longing so keen he had gone to Helena on his knees,took her hand, and asked her to find a way to accept Alexis becauseshe was important to him.
Helena had looked at him a long time in silence and finally hadnodded her agreement. Alexis was family and while she would neverlike the girl, she would do her no harm. In return, Stefan wasresponsible for assuring that Alexis would not act against her. Inthat moment his family was forged anew, and he could not have lovedhis mother more. Ever since that day, their relationship had deepenedHe was more autonomous, yet their bond was stronger than ever. Shelistened to his counsel and more often than not took his advice. As aresult, they had thrived.
And once Alexis and Nikolas accepted their place in the family,Stefan was convinced they would be unstoppable. The Cassadines wouldrise again to become one of the most powerful and influentialfamilies in the world.
But in looking at Nikolas, Stefan saw that he was no closer toaccomplishing that than he was when they first began. Nikolas stoodbefore him pale and shaken. He didn't seem to know what to say.Stefan stepped forward to put a steadying hand on Nikolas's shoulderbut Nikolas recoiled.
"Don't... don't touch me," Nikolas stammered. He'd run but wherewould he go?
"Sit down," Stefan ordered quietly. When Nikolas didn't comply,Stefan repeated himself, more firmly. "Sit down before youcollapse."
Nikolas crumpled onto the loveseat, his head between his knees. Allthe rational arguments fled and panic seized him. "This... this can'tbe happening. This can't. We have fought this all our lives... you'vespent your life protecting me from her... you can't be under hercontrol. There has to be something I can do. There has to besomething...."
Stefan frowned in concern. Nikolas was shutting down and if he didn'tdo something to stop it soon, he would be unreachable. TrappingNikolas was a mistake. He reached out and place his hand on Nikolas'shead. This time, Nikolas did not pull away. "I love you and willalways strive to do what's best for you. When all else is said anddone, this will always be true."
Helena turned at the sound of footsteps on the path. "Finally! Well,tell me what happened."
Stefan took her hand in his and joined her on her stroll. "It did notgo as we hoped. I fear for his well-being."
Helena pulled them to a halt "What do you mean?! What is wrong withhim?"
"He is frightened. He does not understand or trust the changes thathave taken place. If we keep him here against his will, he willwithdraw into himself and I will not be able to reach him. We willlose him."
"NO!" She was furious. To be so close to her goal of having hergrandson rule at her side, only to have that dream thwarted. It wastoo much accept. "You are wrong. He will adjust. He is strong."
Stefan stopped on the path and clasped both of Helena's hands in his."You must trust me on this, Mother. The damage Laura has done.... hasleft his psyche in delicate shape. We must let him leave, if we areto ever have him at our side."
Quick as a flash, Helena slapped her son hard. She was so angry shewas panting. "You Bastard. You play upon my affections while you planto betray ME! You think me a fool?!"
Stefan closed his eyes to the pain, let it burn on his cheek and curlaround his heart. He knew she would take it badly, but he hadhoped... "Mother, I..."
"GET OUT OF MY SIGHT!" She spit venomously, barely stifling the urgeto claw her youngest son's eyes out, to rip him to shreds. She couldkill him with her bare hands. She had trusted him and he had playedher like fool. He made her believe he loved her, that he would doanything for her. It had all been a lie.
"As you wish." Stefan bowed his head and withdrew from her. There wasno reason to stay, she would not hear him now.
Helena stood with her hands clenched at her sides while Stefan strodeout of sight. Watching him leave made her feel worse. But no matterhow her heart ached, she would not cry. She would not.
Helena pushed open the door to the study and found Stefan hard atwork over a spreadsheet. She paused a moment in the doorway, takingin the sight of her son. He looked the same as always: strong,handsome, and far too serious. He'd always worked too hard, but she'dcome to admire that in the last nine months as he had surpassed allher highest expectations. A day had not gone by that she hadn'tmarveled at what he could accomplish. Until this afternoon.
Schooling her expression to be cool, she announced her presence."You're still here."
Stefan glanced up briefly before returning to the numbers. "Whereelse would I be?"
"Joining Nikolas on the mainland." The idea of losing Nikolas whenhe'd been so close to being hers, still choked her.
"Nikolas is in his room upstairs," Stefan answered quietly.
His answer surprised her. Closing the door behind her, Helenastrolled into the room and came to a stop in front of the desk. Sheran a hand over a small ugly statue that was perched on the corner."After informing me how crucial it was that we release him, why is hestill here?"
Stefan threw his glasses on the blotter and shut off the computer. Hestudied his mother from head to toe. She was never less thanstunningly beautiful and regal. She seemed cold to those that didn'tknow or understand her. But he had basked in her warmth, and missedit in the hours since their fight. "I would think you knew why."
"Don't play games with me, Stefan. Not now." Not when she had asliver of hope after hours of believing she'd lost everyone thatmattered. She forced her lips into a thin line so they wouldn'ttremble.
But Stefan saw the crack in her veneer. She was barely holding on.Didn't she know she needn't have bothered? He pushed his chair backand rose. "Have you so little faith in me, Mother? Hve you ever knownme to be inconstant in my affections?"
Helena felt a tremor go through her body. It was too much to hopefor, but she reached out a hand for him. He took it withouthesitation and rounded the desk so he was in front of her, his eyesboring straight to her black soul. He placed her hand on his checkand held it there, letting it warm her hand. The connection betweenthem was as strong as ever. "After our horrible argument, youstill..." Her voice trailed off. She didn't know what to say.
Stefan turned his face so that his lips brushed the palm of her hand."You were afraid I had turned against you. But I have not, and I willnot. Do you trust me now? Do you see now that I love you as much asany son could?"
"I did doubt you. I shouldn't have." But even as she said that, guiltthat had always lingered in the background began to grow in ferocity.If he ever discovered the truth of what she'd done to him... Shelooked up into his clear green eyes, searching them. Praying his keenperception wouldn't detect the stain of guilt.
But he merely smiled back at her. "Are you prepared to hear the restof my argument regarding how to handle Nikolas?"
Helena let him lead her to a chair. "You have a plan."
"More precisely a strategy," Stefan amended, taking the chair besideher. "If Nikolas believes you are the one letting him leave, you willbuild some much needed good will. Once he trusts that we are nottrying to trap him, we can entice him with lures he won't be able toresist. It will take time, but I believe it has a excellent chance ofsuccess."
"As always, you have devised a wise plan. I will go speak to him."Helena reached out and brushed the cheek she slapped before. "I loveyou, My Darling. I will not doubt you again."
Stefan's heart tripped. He had hoped to hear it, had imagined themoment, but this was the first time she'd said it aloud.
"I love you too, Mother."