The Awakening (Chapter Three)
He'd just returned from the woods, and a few scraps of wet leaf clung to the side of his boot. He brushed them off fastidiously. The comments of the students yesterday had not escaped him, and he knew they had been staring at his clothes. He had always dressed in the best, not merely out of vanity, but because it was the right thing to do. His tutor had often said it: Anaristocrat should dress as befits his position. If he does not, he is showing contempt for others . Everyone had a place in the world, and his place had once been among the nobility. Once.
Why was he dwelling on these things? Of course, he should have realized that playing the role of a student was likely to bring his own student days back. Now the memories came thick and fast, as if he were skimming through the pages of a journal, his eyes catching an entry here and there. One flashed before him vividly now: his father's face when Damon had announced he was quitting the University. He would never forget that. He had never seen his father so angry…
"What do you mean, you are not going back?" Giuseppe was usually a fair man, but he had a temper, and his elder son brought out the violence in him.
Just now that son was dabbing at his lips with a saffron-colored silk handkerchief. "I would have thought even you could understand such a simple sentence, father. Shall I repeat it in Latin for you?"
"Damon-" Stefan began tightly, appalled at this disrespect. But his father interrupted.
"You are telling me that I, Giuseppe, Conte di Salvatore, will have to face my friends knowing that my son is ascioparto ? A ne'er-do-well? An idler who makes no useful contribution to Florence?" Servants were edging away as Giuseppe worked himself into a rage.
Damon did not even blink. "Apparently. If you can call those who fawn on you in the hopes that you will lend them money your friends."
" Sporco parassito!" cried Giuseppe, rising from his chair. "Is it not bad enough that when youare at school you waste your time and my money? Oh, yes, I know all about the gambling, the jousting, the women. And I know that if it were not for your secretary and your tutors you would be failing every course. But now you mean to disgrace me utterly. And why? Why?" His large hand whipped up to grasp Damon's chin. "So that you may return to your hunting and hawking?"
Stefan had to give his brother credit; Damon did not wince. He stood, almost lounging in his father's grip, every inch the aristocrat, from the elegantly plain cap on his dark head to his ermine-trimmed cloak to his soft leather shoes. His upper lip was curved in a line of pure arrogance.
You've gone too far this time, thought Stefan, watching the two men whose eyes were locked together. Even you won't be able to charm your way out this time.
But just then there was a light step in the study doorway. Turning, Stefan had been dazzled by eyes the color of lapis lazuli, framed with long golden lashes. It was Katherine. Her father, Baron von Swartzschild, had brought her from the cold lands of the German princes to the Italian countryside, hoping it would help her recover from a prolonged illness. And since the day she had arrived, everything had changed for Stefan.
"I beg your pardon. I did not mean to intrude." Her voice was soft and clear. She made a slight motion as if to leave.
"No, don't go. Stay," Stefan said quickly. He wanted to say more, to catch her hand-but he didn't dare. Not with his father here. All he could do was gaze into those jewellike blue eyes that were raised to his.
"Yes, stay," Giuseppe said, and Stefan saw that his father's thunderous expression had lightened and that he had released Damon. He stepped forward, straightening the heavy folds of his long fur-trimmed gown. "Your father should be returning from his business in the city today, and he will be delighted to see you. But your cheeks are pale, little Katherine. You are not ill again, I hope?"
"You know I am always pale, sir. I do not use rouge like your bold Italian girls."
"You don't need it," said Stefan before he could stop himself, and Katherine smiled at him. She was so beautiful. An ache began in his chest.
His father continued, "And I see all too little of you during the day. You seldom give us the pleasure of your company until twilight."
"I have my studies and devotions in my own rooms, sir," said Katherine quietly, her lashes dropping. Stefan knew this was not true, but he said nothing; he would never betray Katherine's secret. She looked up at his father again. "But I am here now, sir."
"Yes, yes, that is true. And I must see that tonight we have a very special meal for your father's return. Damon… we will speak later." As Giuseppe motioned to a servant and strode out, Stefan turned to Katherine in delight. It was seldom they could speak to each other without the presence of his father or of Gudren, her stolid German maid.
But what Stefan saw then was like a blow to his stomach. Katherine was smiling-the little secret smile that she had often shared with him.
But she was not looking at him. She was looking at Damon.
Stefan hated his brother at that moment, hated Damon's dark beauty and grace and the sensuality that drew women to him like moths to a flame. He wanted, in that instant, to strike Damon, to smash that beauty to pieces. Instead he had to stand and watch as Katherine moved slowly toward his brother, step by step, her golden brocade gown whispering on the tiled floor.
And even as he watched, Damon held out a hand to Katherine, and smiled the cruel smile of triumph…
Stefan turned away from the window sharply.
Why was he reopening old wounds? But, even as he thought it, he drew out the slender gold chain he wore under his shirt. His thumb and forefinger caressed the ring that hung from it, then he held it up to the light.
The little circlet was exquisitely worked in gold, and five centuries had not dimmed its luster. It was set with one stone, a lapis the size of his little fingernail. Stefan looked at it, then at the heavy silver ring, also set with lapis, on his own hand. In his chest was a familiar tightness.
He could not forget the past, and he didn't really wish to. Despite everything that had happened, he cherished Katherine's memory. But there was one memory he must truly not disturb, one page of the journal he must not turn. If he had to relive that horror, that… abomination, he would go mad. As he had been mad that day, that final day, when he had looked upon his own damnation…
Stefan leaned against the window, his forehead pressed to its coolness. His tutor had had another saying: Evil will never find peace. It may triumph, but it will never find peace .
Why had he even come to Fell's Church?
He had hoped to find peace here, but that was impossible. He would never be accepted, he would never rest. Because he was evil. He could not change what he was.
Elena was up even earlier than usual that morning. She could hear Aunt Judith pottering about in her room, getting ready for her shower. Margaret was still fast asleep, curled up like a little mouse in her bed. Elena passed her younger sister's half-open door noiselessly and continued down the hallway to let herself out of the house.
The air was fresh and clear this morning; the quince tree was inhabited only by the usual jays and sparrows. Elena, who had gone to bed with a throbbing headache, lifted her face to the clean blue sky and breathed deeply.
She felt much better than she had yesterday. She'd promised to meet Matt before school, and though she wasn't looking forward to it she was sure it was going to be all right.
Matt lived only two streets away from the high school. It was a simple frame house, like all the others on that street, except that maybe the swing on the porch was a little shabbier, the paint a little more peeled. Matt was already standing outside, and for a moment her heart picked up at the sight of him as it used to.
He was good-looking. There was no doubt about that. Not in the stunning, almost disturbing way that-that some people were, but in a healthy American way. Matt Honeycutt was all-American. His blond hair was cropped short for the football season, and his skin was sunburnt from working outdoors on his grandparents' farm. His blue eyes were honest and straightforward. And just today, as he held out his arms to hug her gently, they were a little sad.
"You want to come inside?"
"No. Let's just walk," Elena said. They went side by side without touching. Maples and black walnut trees lined this street, and the air still had a morning hush. Elena watched her feet on the wet sidewalk, feeling suddenly uncertain. She didn't know how to start after all.
"So you still haven't told me about France," he said.
"Oh, it was great," said Elena. She glanced sideways at him. He was looking at the sidewalk, too. "Everything about it was great," she continued, trying to put some enthusiasm in her voice. "The people, the food, everything. It was really…" Her voice trailed off, and she laughed nervously.
"Yeah, I know. Great," he finished for her. He stopped and stood looking down at his scuffed tennis shoes. Elena recognized them from last year. Matt's family barely got by; maybe he hadn't been able to afford new shoes. She looked up to find those steady blue eyes on her face.
"You know,you look pretty great right now," he said.
Elena opened her mouth in dismay, but he was speaking again.
"And I guess you have something to tell me." She stared at him, and he smiled, a crooked, rueful smile. Then he held out his arms again.
"Oh,Matt ," she said, hugging him hard. She stepped back to look into his face. "Matt, you are the nicest guy I've ever met. I don't deserve you."
"Oh, so that's why you're dumping me," said Matt as they started walking again. "Because I'm too good for you. I should have realized that before."
She punched him in the arm. "No, that isn't why, and I am not dumping you. We're going to be friends, right?"
"Oh, sure. Oh, absolutely."
"Because that's what I've realized we are." She stopped, looking up at him again. "Good friends. Be honest, now, Matt, isn't that how you really feel about me?"
He looked at her, then rolled his eyes heavenward. "Can I take the Fifth on that?" he said. As Elena's face fell, he added, "It doesn't have anything to do with that new guy, does it?"
"No," Elena said after a hesitation, and then added quickly, "I haven't even met him yet. I don't know him."
"But you want to. No, don't say it." He put an arm around her and gently turned her. "Come on, let's head toward school. If we have time, I'll even buy you a doughnut."
As they walked, something thrashed in the walnut tree above them. Matt whistled and pointed. "Look at that! Biggest crow I've ever seen."
Elena looked, but it was already gone.
School that day was merely a convenient place for Elena to review her plan.
She had woken up this morning knowing what to do. And today she gathered as much information as she could on the subject of Stefan Salvatore. Which wasn't hard, because everyone at Robert E. Lee was talking about him.
It was common knowledge that he'd had some sort of run-in with the admissions secretary yesterday. And today he'd been called to the principal's office. Something about his papers. But the principal had sent him back to class (after, it was rumored, a long-distance call to Rome-or was it Washington?), and everything seemed to be settled now. Officially, at least.
When Elena arrived for Euro History class that afternoon, she was greeted by a low whistle in the hall. Dick Carter and Tyler Smallwood were loitering there. A couple of prize jerks, she thought, ignoring the whistle and their staring. They thought being tackle and safety on the varsity football team made them hot stuff. She kept an eye on them as she loitered in the corridor herself, refreshing her lipstick and fiddling with her compact. She'd given Bonnie her special instructions, and the plan was ready to be put into effect as soon as Stefan showed up. The compact mirror gave her a wonderful view of the hall behind her.
Still, she missed him coming somehow. He was beside her suddenly, and she snapped the compact shut as he passed. She meant to stop him, but something happened before she could. Stefan tensed-or, at least, there was something about him that seemed wary all at once. Just then Dick and Tyler stepped in front of the door to the history classroom. Blocking the way.
World-class jerks, thought Elena. Fuming, she glared at them over Stefan's shoulder.
They were enjoying the game, slouching in the doorway, pretending they were completely blind to Stefan standing there.
"Excuse me." It was the same tone he'd used with the history teacher. Quiet, detached.
Dick and Tyler looked at each other, then all around, as if hearing spirit voices.
"Scoozi?" Tyler said in a falsetto. "Scoozi me? Me scoozi? Jacuzzi?" They both laughed.
Elena watched muscles tighten under the T-shirt in front of her. This was completely unfair; they were both taller than Stefan, and Tyler was about twice as broad.
"Is there a problem here?" Elena was as startled as the boys were at the new voice behind her. She turned to see Matt. His blue eyes were hard.
Elena bit her lips on a smile as Tyler and Dick moved slowly, resentfully out of the way. Good old Matt, she thought. But now good old Matt was walking into class beside Stefan, and she was left following them, staring at the backs oftwo T-shirts. When they sat down, she slid into the desk behind Stefan, where she could watch him without being watched herself. Her plan would have to wait until after class.
Matt was rattling change in his pocket, which meant he wanted to say something.
"Uh, hey," he began at last, uncomfortably. "Those guys, you know…"
Stefan laughed. It was a bitter sound. "Who am I to judge?" There was more emotion in his voice than Elena had heard before, even when he had spoken to Mr. Tanner. And that emotion was raw unhappiness. "Anyway, why should I be welcome here?" he finished, almost to himself.
"Why shouldn't you be?" Matt had been staring at Stefan; now his jaw squared with decision.
"Listen," he said. "You were talking about football yesterday. Well, our star wide receiver tore a ligament yesterday afternoon, and we need a replacement. Tryouts are this afternoon. What do you think?"
"Me?" Stefan sounded caught off guard. "Ah… I don't know if I could."
"Can you run?"
"Can-?" Stefan half turned toward Matt, and Elena could see a faint hint of a smile curve his lips. "Yes."
"Can you catch?"
"Yes." "That's all a wide receiver has to do. I'm the quarterback. If you can catch what I throw and run with it, you can play."
"I see." Stefan was actually almost smiling, and though Matt's mouth was serious his blue eyes were dancing. Astonished at herself, Elena realized she was jealous. There was a warmth between the two boys that shut her out completely.
But the next instant Stefan's smile disappeared. He said distantly, "Thank you… but no. I have other commitments."
At that moment, Bonnie and Caroline arrived and class started.
Throughout Tanner's lecture on Europe,
Elena repeated to herself, "Hello. I'm Elena Gilbert. I'm on the Senior Welcoming Committee, and I've been assigned to show you around the school. Now, you wouldn't want to get me in trouble, would you, by not letting me do my job?" That last with wide, wistful eyes-but only if he looked like he might try to get out of it. It was virtually foolproof. He was a sucker for maidens who needed to be rescued.
Halfway through class, the girl sitting to her right passed her a note. Elena opened it and recognized Bonnie's round, childish handwriting. It read: "I kept C. away for as long as I could. What happened? Did it work???"
Elena looked up to see Bonnie twisted around in her front-row seat. Elena pointed to the note and shook her head, mouthing, "After class."
It seemed a century until Tanner gave some last-minute instructions about oral reports and dismissed them. Then everybody sprang up at once. Here goes, thought Elena, and, with her heart pounding, she stepped squarely into Stefan's path, blocking the aisle so that he couldn't get around her.
Just like Dick and Tyler, she thought, feeling a hysterical urge to giggle. She looked up and found her eyes exactly on a level with his mouth.
Her mind went blank. What was it she was supposed to say? She opened her mouth, and somehow the words she'd been practicing came tumbling out. "Hi, I'm Elena Gilbert, and I'm on the Senior Welcoming Committee and I've been assigned-"
"I'm sorry; I don't have time." For a minute, she couldn't believe he was speaking, that he wasn't even going to give her a chance to finish. Her mouth went right on with the speech.
"-to show you around the school-"
"I'm sorry; I can't. I have to-to get to football tryouts." Stefan turned to Matt, who was standing by looking amazed. "You said they were right after school, didn't you?"
"Yes," Matt said slowly. "But-"
"Then I'd better get moving. Maybe you could show me the way."
Matt looked helplessly at Elena, then shrugged. "Well… sure. Come on." He glanced back once as they left. Stefan didn't.
Elena found herself looking around at a circle of interested observers, including Caroline, who was openly smirking. Elena felt a numbness in her body and a fullness in her throat. She couldn't stand to be here for one more second. She turned and walked as quickly as she could from the room.