The Awakening (Chapter Thirteen)
At last, with all attention turned toward the body, she detached herself from the group and edged toward Matt.
"Stefan got out all right," he said, his eyes on the group of adults. "But he told me to take care of you, and I want you to stay here."
"To take care of me?" Alarm and suspicion flashed through Elena. Then, almost in a whisper, she said, "I see." She thought a moment and then spoke carefully. "Matt, I need to go wash my hands. Bonnie got blood on me. Wait here; I'll be back."
He started to say something in protest, but she was already moving away. She held up her stained hands in explanation as she reached the door of the girls' locker room, and the teacher who was now standing there let her through. Once in the locker room, however, she kept on going, right out the far door and into the darkened school. And from there, into the night.
Zuccone! Stefan thought, grabbing a bookcase and flinging it over, sending its contents flying. Fool!
Blind, hateful fool. How could he have been so stupid?
Find a place with them here? Be accepted as one of them? He must have been mad to have thought it was possible.
He picked up one of the great heavy trunks and threw it across the room, where it crashed against the far wall, splintering a window. Stupid,stupid .
Who was after him? Everybody. Matt had said it. "There's been another attack… They think you did it."
Well, for once it looked as if the barbari , the petty living humans with their fear of anything unknown, were right. How else did you explain what had happened? He had felt the weakness, the spinning, swirling confusion; and then darkness had taken him. When he'd awakened it was to hear Matt saying that another human had been pillaged, assaulted. Robbed this time not only of his blood, but of his life. How did you explainthat unless he, Stefan, were the killer?
A killer was what he was. Evil. A creature born in the dark, destined to live and hunt and hide there forever. Well, why not kill, then? Why not fulfill his nature? Since he could not change it, he might as well revel in it. He would unleash his darkness upon this town that hated him, that hunted him even now.
But first… he was thirsty. His veins burned like a network of dry, hot wires. He needed to feed… soon… now.
The boarding house was dark. Elena knocked at the door but received no answer. Thunder cracked overhead. There was still no rain.
After the third barrage of knocking, she tried the door, and it opened. Inside, the house was silent and pitch black. She made her way to the staircase by feel and went up it.
The second landing was just as dark, and she stumbled, trying to find the bedroom with the stairway to the third floor. A faint light showed at the top of the stairs, and she climbed toward it, feeling oppressed by the walls, which seemed to close in on her from either side.
The light came from beneath the closed door. Elena tapped on it lightly and quickly. "Stefan," she whispered, and then she called more loudly, "Stefan, it's me."
No answer. She grasped the knob and pushed the door open, peering around the side. "Stefan-"
She was speaking to an empty room.
And a room filled with chaos. It looked as if some great wind had torn through, leaving destruction in its path. The trunks that had stood in corners so sedately were lying at grotesque angles, their lids gaping open, their contents strewn about the floor. One window was shattered. All Stefan's possessions, all the things he had kept so carefully and seemed to prize, were scattered like rubbish.
Terror swept through Elena. The fury, the violence in this scene of devastation were painfully clear, and they made her feel almost giddy. Somebody who has a history of violence, Tyler had said. I don't care, she thought, anger surging up to push back the fear. I don't care about anything, Stefan; I still want to see you. But where are you?
The trapdoor in the ceiling was open, and cold air was blowing down. Oh, thought Elena, and she had a sudden chill of fear. That roof was so high…
She'd never climbed the ladder to the widow's walk before, and her long skirt made it difficult. She emerged through the trapdoor slowly, kneeling on the roof and then standing up. She saw a dark figure in the corner, and she moved toward it quickly.
"Stefan, I had to come-" she began, and broke off short, because a flash of lightning lit the sky just as the figure in the corner whirled around. And then it was as if every foreboding and fear and nightmare she'd ever had were coming true all at once. It was beyond screaming at; it was beyond anything.
Oh, God… no. Her mind refused to make sense of what her eyes were seeing. No. No. She wouldn't look at this, she wouldn't believe it…
But she could not help seeing. Even if she could have shut her eyes, every detail of the scene was etched upon her memory. As if the flash of lightning had seared it onto her brain forever.
Stefan. Stefan, so sleek and elegant in his ordinary clothes, in his black leather jacket with the collar turned up. Stefan, with his dark hair like one of the roiling storm clouds behind him. Stefan had been caught in that flash of light, half turned toward her, his body twisted into a bestial crouch, with a snarl of animal fury on his face.
And blood. That arrogant, sensitive, sensual mouth was smeared with blood. It showed ghastly red against the pallor of his skin, against the sharp whiteness of his bared teeth. In his hands was the limp body of a mourning dove, white as those teeth, wings outspread. Another lay on the ground at his feet, like a crumpled and discarded handkerchief.
"Oh, God, no," Elena whispered. She went on whispering it, backing away, scarcely aware that she was doing either. Her mind simply could not cope with this horror; her thoughts were running wildly in panic, like mice trying to escape a cage. She wouldn't believe this, she wouldn'tbelieve . Her body was filled with unbearable tension, her heart was bursting, her head reeling.
"Elena!" More terrible than anything else was this, to seeStefan looking at her out of that animal face, to see the snarl changing into a look of shock and desperation. "Elena, please. Please, don't…"
"Oh, God,no !" The screams were trying to rip their way out of her throat. She backed farther away, stumbling, as he took a step toward her. "No!"
"Elena, please-be careful-" That terrible thing, the thing with Stefan's face, was coming after her, green eyes burning. She flung herself backward as he took another step, his hand outstretched. That long, slender-fingered hand that had stroked her hair so gently-
"Don't touch me!" she cried. And then she did scream, as her motion brought her back against the iron railing of the widow's walk. It was iron that had been there for nearly a century and a half, and in places it was nearly rusted through. Elena's panicked weight against it was too much, and she felt it give way. She heard the tearing sound of overstressed metal and wood mingling with her own shriek. And then there was nothing behind her, nothing to grab on to, and she was falling.
In that instant, she saw the seething purple clouds, the dark bulk of the house beside her. It seemed that she had enough time to see them clearly, and to feel an infinity of terror as she screamed and fell, and fell.
But the terrible, shattering impact never came. Suddenly there were arms around her, supporting her in the void. There was a dull thud and the arms tightened, weight giving against her, absorbing the crash. Then all was still.
She held herself motionless within the circle of those arms, trying to get her bearings. Trying to believe yet another unbelievable thing. She had fallen from a three-story roof, and yet she was alive. She was standing in the garden behind the boarding house, in the utter silence between claps of thunder, with fallen leaves on the ground where her broken body should be.
Slowly, she brought her gaze upward to the face of the one who held her. Stefan.
There had been too much fear, too many blows tonight. She could react no longer. She could only stare up at him with a kind of wonder.
There was such sadness in his eyes. Those eyes that had burned like green ice were now dark and empty, hopeless. The same look that she'd seen that first night in his room, only now it was worse. For now there was self-hatred mixed with the sorrow, and bitter condemnation. She couldn't bear it.
"Stefan," she whispered, feeling that sadness enter her own soul. She could still see the tinge of red on his lips, but now it awakened a thrill of pity along with the instinctive horror. To be so alone, so alien and so alone…
"Oh, Stefan," she whispered.
There was no answer in those bleak, lost eyes. "Come," he said quietly, and led her back toward the house.
Stefan felt a rush of shame as they reached the third story and the destruction that was his room. That Elena, of all people, should see this was insupportable. But then, perhaps it was also fitting that she should see what he truly was, what he could do.
She moved slowly, dazedly to the bed and sat. Then she looked up at him, her shadowed eyes meeting his. "Tell me," was all she said.
He laughed shortly, without humor, and saw her flinch. It made him hate himself more. "What do you need to know?" he said. He put a foot on the lid of an overturned trunk and faced her almost defiantly, indicating the room with a gesture. "Who did this? I did."
"You're strong," she said, her eyes on a capsized trunk. Her gaze lifted upward, as if she were remembering what had happened on the roof. "And quick."
"Stronger than a human," he said, with deliberate emphasis on the last word. Why didn't she cringe from him now, why didn't she look at him with the loathing he had seen before? He didn't care what she thought any longer. "My reflexes are faster, and I'm more resilient. I have to be. I'm a hunter," he said harshly.
Something in her look made him remember how she had interrupted him. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then went quickly to pick up a glass of water that stood unharmed on the nightstand. He could feel her eyes on him as he drank it and wiped his mouth again. Oh, he still cared what she thought, all right.
"You can eat and drink… other things," she said.
"I don't need to," he said quietly, feeling weary and subdued. "I don't need anything else." He whipped around suddenly and felt passionate intensity rise in him again. "You said I was quick-but that's just what I'm not. Have you ever heard the saying 'the quick and the dead,' Elena? Quick means living; it means those who have life. I'm the other half."
He could see that she was trembling. But her voice was calm, and her eyes never left his. "Tell me," she said again. "Stefan, I have a right to know."
He recognized those words. And they were as true as when she had first said them. "Yes, I suppose you do," he said, and his voice was tired and hard. He stared at the broken window for a few heartbeats and then looked back at her and spoke flatly. "I was born in the late fifteenth century. Do you believe that?"
She looked at the objects that lay where he'd scattered them from the bureau with one furious sweep of his arm. The florins, the agate cup, his dagger. "Yes," she said softly. "Yes, I believe it."
"And you want to know more? How I came to be what I am?" When she nodded, he turned to the window again. How could he tell her? He, who had avoided questions for so long, who had become such an expert at hiding and deceiving.
There was only one way, and that was to tell the absolute truth, concealing nothing. To lay it all before her, what he had never offered to any other soul.
And he wanted to do it. Even though he knew it would make her turn away from him in the end, he needed to show Elena what he was.
And so, staring into the darkness outside the window, where flashes of blue brilliance occasionally lit the sky, he began.
He spoke dispassionately, without emotion, carefully choosing his words. He told her of his father, that solid Renaissance man, and of his world in Florence and at their country estate. He told her of his studies and his ambitions. Of his brother, who was so different than he, and of the ill feeling between them.
"I don't know when Damon started hating me," he said. "It was always that way, as long as I can remember. Maybe it was because my mother never really recovered from my birth. She died a few years later. Damon loved her very much, and I always had the feeling that he blamed me." He paused and swallowed. "And then, later, there was a girl."
"The one I remind you of?" Elena said softly. He nodded. "The one," she said, more hesitantly, "who gave you the ring?"
He glanced down at the silver ring on his finger, then met her eyes. Then, slowly, he drew out the ring he wore on the chain beneath his shirt and looked at it.
"Yes. This was her ring," he said. "Without such a talisman, we die in sunlight as if in a fire."
"Then she was… like you?"
"She made me what I am." Haltingly, he told her about Katherine. About Katherine's beauty and sweetness, and about his love for her. And about Damon's.
"She was too gentle, filled with too much affection," he said at last, painfully. "She gave it to everyone, including my brother. But finally, we told her she had to choose between us. And then… she came to me."
The memory of that night, of that sweet, terrible night came sweeping back. She had come to him. And he had been so happy, so full of awe and joy. He tried to tell Elena about that, to find the words. All that night he had been so happy, and even the next morning, when he had awakened and she was gone, he had been throned on highest bliss…
It might almost have been a dream, but the two little wounds on his neck were real. He was surprised to find that they did not hurt and that they seemed to be partially healed already. They were hidden by the high neck of his shirt.
Herblood burned in his veins now, he thought, and the very words made his heart race. She had given her strength to him; she had chosen him.
He even had a smile for Damon when they met at the designated place that evening. Damon had been absent from the house all day, but he showed up in the meticulously landscaped garden precisely on time, and stood lounging against a tree, adjusting his cuff. Katherine was late.
"Perhaps she is tired," Stefan suggested, watching the melon-colored sky fade into deep midnight blue. He tried to keep the shy smugness from his voice. "Perhaps she needs more rest than usual."
Damon glanced at him sharply, his dark eyes piercing under the shock of black hair. "Perhaps," he said on a rising note, as if he would have said more.
But then they heard a light step on the path, and Katherine appeared between the box hedges. She was wearing her white gown, and she was as beautiful as an angel.
She had a smile for both of them. Stefan returned the smile politely, speaking their secret only with his eyes. Then he waited.
"You asked me to make my choice," she said, looking first at him and then at his brother. "And now you have come at the hour I appointed, and I will tell you what I have chosen."
She held up her small hand, the one with the ring on it, and Stefan looked at the stone, realizing it was the same deep blue as the evening sky. It was as if Katherine carried a piece of the night with her, always.
"You have both seen this ring," she said quietly. "And you know that without it I would die. It is not easy to have such talismans made, but fortunately my woman Gudren is clever. And there are many silversmiths in Florence."
Stefan was listening without comprehension, but when she turned to him he smiled again, encouragingly.
"And so," she said, gazing into his eyes. "I have had a present made for you." She took his hand and pressed something into it. When he looked he saw that it was a ring in the same fashion as her own, but larger and heavier, and wrought in silver instead of gold.
"You do not need it yet to face the sun," she said softly, smiling. "But very soon you will."
Pride and rapture made him mute. He reached for her hand to kiss it, wanting to take her into his arms right then, even in front of Damon. But Katherine was turning away.
"And for you," she said, and Stefan thought his ears must be betraying him, for surely the warmth, the fondness in Katherine's voice could not be for his brother, "for you, also. You will need ft very soon as well."
Stefan's eyes must be traitors, too. They were showing him what was impossible, what could not be. Into Damon's hand Katherine was putting a ring just like his own.
The silence that followed was absolute, like the silence after the world's ending.
"Katherine-" Stefan could barely force out the words. "How can you give that tohim ? After what we shared-"
"What you shared?" Damon's voice was like the crack of a whip, and he turned on Stefan angrily. "Last night she came to me. The choice is already made." And Damon jerked down his high collar to show two tiny wounds in his throat. Stefan stared at them, fighting down the bright sickness. They were identical to his own wounds.
He shook his head in utter bewilderment. "But, Katherine… it was not a dream. You came tome …"
"I came to both of you." Katherine's voice was tranquil, even pleased, and her eyes were serene. She smiled at Damon and then at Stefan in turn. "It has weakened me, but I am so glad I did. Don't you see?" she continued as they stared at her, too stunned to speak. "This is my choice! I love you both, and I will not give either of you up. Now we all three will be together, and be happy."
"Happy-" Stefan choked out.
"Yes, happy! The three of us will be companions, joyous companions, forever." Her voice rose with elation, and the light of a radiant child shone in her eyes. "We will be together always, never feeling sickness, never growing old, until the end of time! That is my choice."
"Happy… with him ?" Damon's voice was shaking with fury, and Stefan saw that his normally self-contained brother was white with rage. "With thisboy standing between us, this prating, mouthing paragon of virtue? I can barely stand the sight of him now. I wish to God that I should never see him again, never hear his voice again!"
"And I wish the same ofyou , brother," snarled Stefan, his heart tearing in his breast. This was Damon's fault; Damon had poisoned Katherine's mind so that she no longer knew what she was doing. "And I have half a mind to make sure of it," he added savagely. Damon did not mistake his meaning. "Then get your sword, if you can find it," he hissed back, his eyes black with menace.
"Damon, Stefan, please! Please, no!" Katherine cried, putting herself between them, catching Stefan's arm. She looked from one to the other, her blue eyes wide with shock and bright with unshed tears. "Think of what you are saying. You are brothers."
"By no fault of mine," Damon grated, making the words a curse.
"But can you not make peace? For me, Damon… Stefan?Please ."
Part of Stefan wanted to melt at Katherine's desperate look, at her tears. But wounded pride and jealousy were too strong, and he knew his face was as hard, as unyielding, as Damon's.
"No," he said. "We cannot. It must be one or the other, Katherine. I will never share you withhim ."
Katherine's hand fell away from his arm, and the tears fell from her eyes, great droplets that splashed onto the white gown. She caught her breath in a wrenching sob. Then, still weeping, she picked up her skirts and ran.
"And then Damon took the ring she had given him and put it on," Stefan said, his voice hoarse with use and emotion. "And he said to me, 'I'll have her yet,brother .' And then he walked away." He turned, blinking as if he'd come into a bright light from the dark, and looked at Elena.
She was sitting quite still on the bed, watching him with those eyes that were so much like Katherine's. Especially now, when they were filled with sorrow and dread. But Elena did not run. She spoke to him.
"And… what happened then?"
Stefan's hands clenched violently, reflexively, and he jerked away from the window. Not that memory. He could not endure that memory himself, much less try tospeak it. How could he do that? How could he take Elena down into that darkness and show her the terrible things lurking there?
"No," he said. "I can't. Ican't ."
"You have to tell me," she said softly. "Stefan, it's the end of the story, isn't it? That's what's behind all your walls, that's what you're afraid to let me see. But you must let me see it. Oh, Stefan, you can't stop now."
He could feel the horror reaching for him, the yawning pit he had seen so clearly, felt so clearly that day long ago. The day when it had all ended-when it had all begun.
He felt his hand taken, and when he looked he saw Elena's fingers closed about it, giving him warmth, giving him strength. Her eyes were on his. "Tell me."
"You want to know what happened next, what became of Katherine?" he whispered. She nodded, her eyes nearly blind but still steady. "I'll tell you, then. She died the next day. My brother Damon and I, we killed her."