The Awakening (Chapter Eight)
She wasn't quite sure how the transformation had taken place. But sometime while she was washing the scratches on her face and arms, annoyed at the lack of a mirror and at the fact she'd left her purse in Tyler's convertible, she startedfeeling again. And what she felt was anger.
Damn Stefan Salvatore. So cold and controlled even while saving her life. Damn him for his politeness, and for his gallantry, and for the walls around him that seemed thicker and higher than ever.
She pulled the remaining bobby pins out of her hair and used them to fasten the front of her dress together. Then she ran through her loosened hair quickly with an engraved bone comb she found by the sink. She came out of the bathroom with her chin held high and her eyes narrowed.
He hadn't put his coat back on. He was standing by the window in his white sweater with bowed head, tense, waiting. Without lifting his head, he gestured to a length of dark velvet laid over the back of a chair.
"You might want to put that on over your dress."
It was a full-length cloak, very rich and soft, with a hood. Elena pulled the heavy material around her shoulders. But she was not mollified by the gift; she noticed that Stefan hadn't come any closer to her, or even looked at her while speaking.
Deliberately, she invaded his territorial space, pulling the cloak more tightly about her and feeling, even at that moment, a sensual appreciation of the way the folds fell about her, trailing behind her on the floor. She walked up to him and made an examination of the heavy mahogany dresser by the window.
On it lay a wicked-looking dagger with an ivory hilt and a beautiful agate cup mounted in silver. There were also a golden sphere with some sort of dial set into it and several loose gold coins.
She picked up one of the coins, partly because it was interesting and partly because she knew it would upset him to see her handling his things. "What's this?"
It was a moment before he answered. Then he said:
"A gold florin. A Florentine coin."
"And what's this?"
"A German pendant watch. Late fifteenth century," he said distractedly. He added, "Elena-"
She reached for a small iron coffer with a hinged lid. "What about this? Does it open?"
"No." He had the reflexes of a cat; his hand slapped over the coffer, holding the lid down. "That's private," he said, the strain obvious in his voice.
She noticed that his hand made contact only with the curving iron lid and not with her flesh. She lifted her fingers, and he drew back at once.
Suddenly, her anger was too great to hold in any longer. "Careful," she said savagely. "Don't touch me, or you might get a disease."
He turned away toward the window.
And yet even as she moved away herself, walking back to the center of the room, she could sense his watching her reflection. And she knew, suddenly, what she must look like to him, pale hair spilling over the blackness of the cape, one white hand holding the velvet closed at her throat. A ravaged princess pacing in her tower.
She tilted her head far back to look at the trapdoor in the ceiling, and heard a soft, distinct intake of breath. When she turned, his gaze was fixed on her exposed throat; the look in his eyes confused her. But the next moment his face hardened, closing her out.
"I think," he said, "that I had better get you home."
In that instant, she wanted to hurt him, to make him feel as bad as he'd made her feel. But she also wanted the truth. She was tired of this game, tired of scheming and plotting and trying to read Stefan Salvatore's mind. It was terrifying and yet a wonderful relief to hear her own voice saying the words she'd been thinking so long.
"Why do you hate me?" He stared at her. For a moment he couldn't seem to find words. Then he said, "I don't hate you."
"You do," said Elena. "I know it's not… not good manners to say it, but I don't care. I know I should be grateful to you for saving me tonight, but I don't care about that, either. I didn't ask you to save me. I don't know why you were even in the graveyard in the first place. And I certainly don't understand why you did it, considering the way you feel about me."
He was shaking his head, but his voice was soft. "I don't hate you."
"From the very beginning, you've avoided me as if I were… were some kind of leper. I tried to be friendly to you, and you threw it back in my face. Is that what agentleman does when someone tries to welcome him?"
He was trying to say something now, but she swept on, heedless. "You've snubbed me in public time after time; you've humiliated me at school. You wouldn't be speaking to me now if it hadn't been a matter of life or death. Is that what it takes to get a word out of you? Does someone have to nearly be murdered?
"And even now," she continued bitterly, "you don't want me to get anywhere near you. What's the matter with you, Stefan Salvatore, that you have to live this way? That you have to build walls against other people to keep them out? That you can't trust anyone?What's wrong with you ?"
He was silent now, his face averted. She took a deep breath and then straightened her shoulders, holding her head up even though her eyes were sore and burning. "And what's wrong withme ," she added, more quietly, "that you can't even look at me, but you can let Caroline Forbes fall all over you? I have a right to know that, at least. I won't ever bother you again, I won't even talk to you at school, but I want to know the truth before I go. Why do you hate me so much, Stefan?"
Slowly, he turned and raised his head. His eyes were bleak, sightless, and something twisted in Elena at the pain she saw on his face.
His voice was still controlled-but barely. She could hear the effort it cost him to keep it steady.
"Yes," he said, "I think you do have a right to know. Elena." He looked at her then, meeting her eyes directly, and she thought, That bad? What could be as bad as that? "I don't hate you," he continued, pronouncing each word carefully, distinctly. "I've never hated you. But you… remind me of someone."
Elena was taken aback. Whatever she'd expected, it wasn't this. "I remind you of someone else you know?"
"Of someone I knew," he said quietly. "But," he added slowly, as if puzzling something out for himself, "you're not like her, really. She looked like you, but she was fragile, delicate. Vulnerable. Inside as well as out."
"And I'm not."
He made a sound that would have been a laugh if there had been any humor in it. "No. You're a fighter. You are… yourself."
Elena was silent for a moment. She could not keep hold of her anger, seeing the pain on his face. "You were very close to her?"
There was a long pause, so long that Elena thought he wasn't going to answer her. But at last he said, "She died."
Elena let out a tremulous breath. The last of her anger folded up and disappeared from under her. "That must have hurt terribly," she said softly, thinking of the white Gilbert headstone among the rye grass. "I'm so sorry."
He said nothing. His face had closed again, and he seemed to be looking far away at something, something terrible and heartbreaking that only he could see. But there was not just grief in his expression. Through the walls, through all his trembling control, she could see the tortured look of unbearable guilt and loneliness. A look so lost and haunted that she had moved to his side before she knew what she was doing.
"Stefan," she whispered. He didn't seem to hear her; he seemed to be adrift in his own world of misery.
She could not stop herself from laying a hand on his arm. "Stefan, I know how it can hurt-"
"You can't know," he exploded, all his quietness erupting into white rage. He looked down at her hand as if just realizing it was there, as if infuriated at her effrontery in touching him. His green eyes were dilated and dark as he shook her hand off, flinging a hand up to bar her from touching him again-
-and somehow, instead, he was holding her hand, his fingers tightly interlocked with hers, hanging on for dear life. He looked down at their locked hands in bewilderment. Then, slowly, his gaze moved from their clasping fingers to her face.
"Elena…" he whispered.
And then she saw it, the anguish shattering his gaze, as if he simply couldn't fight any longer. The defeat as the walls finally crumbled and she saw what was underneath.
And then, helplessly, he bent his head down to her lips.
"Wait-stop here," said Bonnie. "I thought I saw something."
Matt's battered Ford slowed, edging toward the side of the road, where brambles and bushes grew thickly. Something white glimmered there, coming toward them.
"Oh, my God," said Meredith. "It's Vickie Bennett."
The girl stumbled into the path of the headlights and stood there, wavering, as Matt hit the brakes. Her light-brown hair was tangled and in disarray, and her eyes stared glassily out of a face that was smudged and grimy with dirt. She was wearing only a thin white slip.
"Get her in the car," said Matt. Meredith was already opening the car door. She jumped out and ran up to the dazed girl.
"Vickie, are you all right? What happened to you?"
Vickie moaned, still looking straight ahead. Then she suddenly seemed to see Meredith, and she clutched at her, digging her nails into Meredith's arms.
"Get out of here," she said, her eyes filled with desperate intensity, her voice strange and thick, as if she had something in her mouth. "All of you-get out of here! It's coming."
"What's coming? Vickie, where is Elena?"
"Get outnow . …"
Meredith looked down the road, then led the shaking girl back to the car. "We'll take you away," she said, "but you have to tell us what's happened. Bonnie, give me your wrap. She's freezing."
"She's been hurt," said Matt grimly. "And she's in shock or something. The question is, where are the others? Vickie, was Elena with you?"
Vickie sobbed, putting her hands over her face as Meredith settled Bonnie's iridescent pink wrap around her shoulders. "No… Dick," she said indistinctly. It seemed to hurt her to speak. "We were in the church… it was horrible. It came… like mist all around. Dark mist. And eyes. I saw its eyes in the dark there, burning. They burnt me…"
"She's delirious," said Bonnie. "Or hysterical, or whatever you call it."
Matt spoke slowly and clearly. "Vickie, please, just tell us one thing. Where is Elena? What happened to her?"
"I don't know ." Vickie lifted a tear-stained face to the sky. "Dick and I-we were alone. We were… and then suddenly it was all around us. I couldn't run. Elena said the tomb had opened. Maybe that was where it came from. It was horrible…"
"They were in the cemetery, in the ruined church," Meredith interpreted. "And Elena was with them. And look at this." In the overhead light, they could all see the deep fresh scratches running down Vickie's neck to the lace bodice of her slip.
"They look like animal marks," said Bonnie. "Like the marks of cat's claws, maybe."
"No cat got that old man under the bridge," said Matt. His face was pale, and muscles stood out in his jaw. Meredith followed his gaze down the road and then shook her head.
"Matt, we have to take her back first. We have to," she said. "Listen to me, I'm as worried about Elena as you are. But Vickie needs a doctor, and we need to call the police. We don't have any choice. We have to go back."
Matt stared down the road for another long moment, then let out his breath in a hiss. Slamming the door shut, he put the car into gear and turned it around, each motion violent.
All the way back to town, Vickie moaned about the eyes.
Elena felt Stefan's lips meet hers.
And… it was as simple as that. All questions answered, all fears put to rest, all doubts removed. What she felt was not merely passion, but a bruising tenderness and a love so strong it made her shake inside. It would have been frightening in its intensity, except that while she was with him, she could not be afraid of anything.
She had come home.
This was where she belonged, and she had found it at last. With Stefan, she was home.
He pulled back slightly, and she could feel that he was trembling.
"Oh, Elena," he whispered against her lips. We can't-
"We already have," she whispered, and drew him back down again.
It was almost as if she could hear his thoughts, could feel his feelings. Pleasure and desire raced between them, connecting them, drawing them closer. And Elena sensed, too, a wellspring of deeper emotions within him. He wanted to hold her forever, to protect her from all harm. He wanted to defend her from any evil that threatened her. He wanted to join his life with hers.
She felt the tender pressure of his lips on hers, and she could hardly bear the sweetness of it. Yes , she thought. Sensation rippled through her like waves on a still, clear pond. She was drowning in it, both the joy she sensed in Stefan and the delicious answering surge in herself. Stefan's love bathed her, shone through her, lighting every dark place in her soul like the sun. She trembled with pleasure, with love, and with longing.
He drew back slowly, as if he could not bear to part from her, and they looked into each other's eyes with wondering joy.
They did not speak. There was no need for words. He stroked her hair, with a touch so light that she could scarcely feel it, as if he was afraid she might break in his hands. She knew, then, that it had not been hatred that had made him avoid her for so long. No, it had not been hatred at all.
Elena had no idea how much later it was that they quietly went down the stairs of the boarding house. At any other time, she would have been thrilled to get into Stefan's sleek black car, but tonight she scarcely noticed it. He held her hand as they drove through the deserted streets.
The first thing Elena saw as they approached her house was the lights.
"It's the police," she said, finding her voice with some difficulty. It was odd to talk after being silent so long. "And that's Robert's car in the driveway, and there's Matt's," she said. She looked at Stefan, and the peace that had filled her suddenly seemed fragile. "I wonder what happened. You don't suppose Tyler's already told them… ?"
"Even Tyler wouldn't be that stupid," said Stefan.
He pulled up behind one of the police cars, and reluctantly Elena unclasped her hand from his. She wished with all her heart that she and Stefan could just be alone together, that they would never need to face the world.
But there was no help for it. They walked up the pathway to the door, which was open. Inside, the house was a blaze of lights.
Entering, Elena saw what seemed like dozens of faces turned toward her. She had a sudden vision of what she must look like, standing there in the doorway in the sweeping black velvet cloak, with Stefan Salvatore at her side. And then Aunt Judith gave a cry and was holding her in her arms, shaking her and hugging her all at once.
"Elena! Oh, thank God you're safe. But where have you been? And why didn't you call? Do you realize what you've put everyone through?"
Elena stared around the room in bewilderment. She didn't understand a thing.
"We're just glad to see you back," said Robert.
"I've been at the boarding house, with Stefan," she said slowly. "Aunt Judith, this is Stefan Salvatore; he rents a room there. He brought me back."
"Thank you," said Aunt Judith to Stefan over Elena's head. Then, pulling back to look at Elena, she said, "But your dress, your hair-what happened?"
"You don't know? Then Tyler didn't tell you. But then why are the police here?" Elena edged toward Stefan instinctively, and she felt him move closer to her in protection.
"They're here because Vickie Bennett was attacked in the cemetery tonight," said Matt. He and Bonnie and Meredith were standing behind Aunt Judith and Robert, looking relieved and a little awkward and more than a little tired. "We found her maybe two, three hours ago, and we've been looking for you ever since."
"Attacked?" said Elena, stunned. "Attacked by what?"
"Nobody knows," said Meredith.
"Well, now, it may be nothing to worry about," said Robert comfortingly. "The doctor said she'd had a bad scare, and that she'd been drinking. The whole thing may have been in her imagination."
"Those scratches weren't imaginary," said Matt, polite but stubborn.
"What scratches? What are you talking about?" Elena demanded, looking from one face to another.
"I'll tell you," said Meredith, and she explained, succinctly, how she and the others had found Vickie. "She kept saying she didn't know where you were, that she was alone with Dick when it happened. And when we got her back here, the doctor said he couldn't find anything conclusive. She wasn't really hurt except for the scratches, and they could have been from a cat."
"There were no other marks on her?" said Stefan sharply. It was the first time he'd spoken since entering the house, and Elena looked at him, surprised by his tone.
"No," said Meredith. "Of course, a cat didn't tear her clothes off-but Dick might have. Oh, and her tongue was bitten."
"What?" said Elena.
"Badly bitten, I mean. It must have bled a lot, and it hurts her to talk now."
Beside Elena, Stefan had gone very still. "Did she have any explanation for what happened?"
"She was hysterical," Matt said. "Really hysterical; she wasn't making any sense. She kept babbling about eyes and dark mist and not being able to run-which is why the doctor thinks maybe it was some sort of hallucination. But as far as anyone can make out, the facts are that she and Dick Carter were in the ruined church by the cemetery at about midnight, and that something came in and attacked her there."
Bonnie added, "It didn't attack Dick, which at least shows it had, some taste. The police found him passed out on the church floor, and he doesn't remember a thing."
But Elena scarcely heard the last words. Something had gone terribly wrong with Stefan. She couldn't tell how she knew it, but she knew. He had stiffened as Matt finished speaking, and now, though he hadn't moved, she felt as if a great distance was separating them, as if she and he were on opposite sides of a rifting, cracking floe of ice.
He said, in the terribly controlled voice she had heard before in his room, "In the church, Matt?"
"Yes, in the ruined church," Matt said.
"And you're sure she said it was midnight?"
"She couldn't be positive, but it must have been sometime around then. We found her not long after. Why?"
Stefan said nothing. Elena could feel the gulf between them widening. "Stefan," she whispered. Then, aloud, she said desperately, "Stefan, what is it?"
He shook his head. Don't shut me out, she thought, but he wouldn't even look at her. "Will she live?" he asked abruptly.
"The doctor said there was nothing much wrong with her," Matt said. "Nobody's even suggested she might die."
Stefan's nod was abrupt; then he turned to Elena. "I've got to go," he said. "You're safe now."
She caught his hand as he turned away. "Of course I'm safe," she said. "Because of you."
"Yes," he said. But there was no response in his eyes. They were shielded, dull.
"Call me tomorrow." She squeezed his hand, trying to convey what she felt under the scrutiny of all those watching eyes. She willed him to understand.
He looked down at their hands with no expression at all, then, slowly, back up at her. And then, at last, he returned the pressure of her fingers. "Yes, Elena," he whispered, his eyes clinging to hers. The next minute he was gone.
She took a deep breath and turned back to the crowded room. Aunt Judith was still hovering, her gaze fixed on what could be seen of Elena's torn dress underneath the cloak.
"Elena," she said, "whathappened ?" And her eyes went to the door through which Stefan had just left.
A sort of hysterical laughter surged up in Elena's throat, and she choked it back. "Stefan didn't do it," she said. "Stefan saved me." She felt her face harden, and she looked at the police officer behind Aunt Judith. "It was Tyler, Tyler Smallwood…"