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The Awakening (Chapter Fourteen)

Elena felt her flesh creep at the words.

"You don't mean that," she said shakily. She remembered what she had seen on the roof, the blood smeared on Stefan's lips, and she forced herself not to recoil from him. "Stefan, I know you. You couldn't have done that…"  

He ignored her protestations, just went on staring with eyes that burned like the green ice at the bottom of a glacier. He was looking through her, into some incomprehensible distance. "As I lay in bed that night, I hoped against hope that she would come. Already I was noticing some of the changes in myself. I could see better in the dark; it seemed I could hear better. I felt stronger than ever before, full of some elemental energy. And I was hungry.

"It was a hunger I had never imagined. At dinner I found that ordinary food and drink did nothing to satisfy it. I couldn't understand that. And then I saw the white neck of one of the serving girls, and I knew why." He drew a long breath, his eyes dark and tortured. "That night, I resisted the need, though it took all my will. I was thinking of Katherine, and praying she would come to me. Praying!" He gave a short laugh. "If a creature like me can pray."  

Elena's fingers were numb within his grasp, but she tried to tighten them, to send him reassurance. "Go on, Stefan."  

He had no trouble speaking now. He seemed almost to have forgotten her presence, as if he were telling this story to himself.

"The next morning the need was stronger. It was as if my own veins were dry and cracked, desperate for moisture. I knew that I couldn't stand it for long.

"I went to Katherine's chambers. I meant to ask her, to plead with her-" His voice cracked. He paused and then went on. "But Damon was there already, waiting outside her rooms. I could see thathe hadn't resisted the need. The glow of his skin, the spring in his step, told me that. He looked as smug as the cat who's had the cream.

"But he hadn't had Katherine. 'Knock all you like,' he said to me, 'but the female dragon inside won't let you past. I've tried already. Shall we overpower her, you and I?'  

"I wouldn't answer him. The look on his face, that sly, self-satisfied look, repelled me. I pounded on that door to wake…" He faltered, and then gave another humorless laugh. "I was going to say, 'to wake the dead.' But the dead aren't so hard to wake after all, are they?" After a moment, he went on.

"The maid, Gudren, opened the door. She had a face like a flat white plate, and eyes like black glass. I asked her if I could see her mistress. I expected to be told that Katherine was asleep, but instead Gudren just looked at me, then at Damon over my shoulder.

" 'I would not tellhim ,' she said at last, 'but I will tell you. My lady Katerina is not within. She went out early this morning, to walk in the gardens. She said she had much need of thought.'  

"I was surprised. 'Early this morning?' I said.

" 'Yes,' she replied. She looked at both Damon and me without liking. 'My mistress was very unhappy last night,' she said meaningfully. 'All night long, she wept.'  

"When she said that, a strange feeling came over me. It wasn't just shame and grief that Katherine should be so unhappy. It was fear. I forgot my hunger and weakness. I even forgot my enmity for Damon. I was filled with haste and a great driving urgency. I turned to Damon and told him that we had to find Katherine, and to my surprise he just nodded.

"We began to search the gardens, calling Katherine's name. I remember just what everything looked like that day. The sun was shining on the high cypress trees and the pines in the garden. Damon and I hurried between them, moving more and more quickly, and calling. We kept calling her…"  

Elena could feel the tremors in Stefan's body, communicated to her through his tightly gripping fingers. He was breathing rapidly but shallowly.

"We had almost reached the end of the gardens when I remembered a place that Katherine had loved. It was a little way out onto the grounds, a low wall beside a lemon tree. I started there, shouting for her. But as I got closer, I stopped shouting. I felt… a fear-a terrible premonition. And I knew I mustn't-mustn't go-"  

"Stefan!" said Elena. He was hurting her, his fingers biting into her own, crushing them. The tremors racing through his body were growing, becoming shudders. "Stefan, please!"  

But he gave no sign that he heard her. "It was like-a nightmare-everything happening so slowly. I couldn't move-and yet I had to. I had to keep walking. With each step, the fear grew stronger. I could smell it. A smell like burned fat. I mustn't go there-I don't want to see it-"  

His voice had become high and urgent, his breath coming in gasps. His eyes were wide and dilated, like a terrified child's. Elena gripped his viselike fingers with her other hand, enfolding them completely. "Stefan, it's all right. You're not there. You're here with me."  

"I don't want to see it-but I can't help it. There's something white. Something white under the tree. Don't make me look at it!"  

"Stefan, Stefan, look at me!"  

He was beyond hearing. His words came in heaving spasms, as if he could not control them, could not get them out fast enough. "I can't go any closer-but I do. I see the tree, the wall. And that white. Behind the tree. White with gold underneath. And then I know, I know, and I'm moving toward it because it's her dress. Katherine's white dress. And I get around the tree and I see it on the ground and it's true. It's Katherine's dress,"-his voice rose and broke in unimaginable horror-"but Katherine isn't in it."  

Elena felt a chill, as if her body had been plunged into ice water. Her skin rose in goose-flesh, and she tried to speak to him but couldn't. He was rattling on as if he could keep the terror away if he kept on talking.

"Katherine isn't there, so maybe it's all a joke, but her dress is on the ground and it's full of ashes. Like the ashes in the hearth, just like that, only these smell of burned flesh. They stink. The smell is making me sick and faint. Beside the sleeve of the dress is a piece of parchment. And on a rock, on a rock a little way away is a ring. A ring with a blue stone, Katherine's ring. Katherine's ring…" Suddenly, he called out in a terrible voice, "Katherine, what have youdone ?" Then he fell to his knees, releasing Elena's fingers at last, to bury his face in his hands.

Elena held him as he was gripped by wracking sobs. She held his shoulders, pulling him to her lap. "Katherine took the ring off," she whispered. It was not a question. "She exposed herself to the sun."  

His harsh sobs went on and on, as she held him to the full skirts of the blue gown, stroking his quivering shoulders. She murmured nonsense meant to soothe him, pushing away her own horror. And, presently, he quieted and lifted his head. He spoke thickly, but he seemed to have returned to the present, to have come back.

"The parchment was a note, for me and for Damon. It said she had been selfish, wanting to have both of us. It said-she couldn't bear to be the cause of strife between us. She hoped that once she was gone we would no longer hate each other. She did it to bring us together."  

"Oh, Stefan," whispered Elena. She felt burning tears fill her own eyes in sympathy. "Oh, Stefan, I'm so sorry. But don't you see, after all this time, that what Katherine did was wrong? It was selfish, even, and it washer choice. In a way, it had nothing to do with you, or with Damon."  

Stefan shook his head as if to shake off the truth of the words. "She gave her life… for that. We killed her." He was sitting up now. But his eyes were still dilated, great disks of black, and he had the look of a small bewildered boy.

"Damon came up behind me. He took the note and read it. And then-I think he went mad. We were both mad. I had picked up Katherine's ring, and he tried to take it. He shouldn't have. We struggled. We said terrible things to each other. We each blamed the other for what had happened. I don't remember how we got back to the house, but suddenly I had my sword. We were fighting. I wanted to destroy that arrogant face forever, to kill him. I remember my father shouting from the house. We fought harder, to finish it before he reached us.

"And we were well matched. But Damon had always been stronger, and that day he seemed faster, too, as if he had changed more than I had. And so while my father was still shouting from the window I felt Damon's blade get past my guard. Then I felt it enter my heart."  

Elena stared, aghast, but he went on without pause. "I felt the pain of the steel, I felt it stab through me, deep, deep inside. All the way through, a hard thrust. And then the strength poured out of me and I fell. I lay there on the paved ground."  

He looked up at Elena and finished simply, "And that is how… I died."  

Elena sat frozen, as if the ice she'd felt in her chest earlier tonight had flooded out and trapped her.

"Damon came and stood over me and bent down. I could hear my father's cries from far away, and screams from the household, but all I could see was Damon's face. Those black eyes that were like a moonless night. I wanted to hurt him for what he had done to me. For everything he had done to me, and to Katherine." Stefan was quiet a moment, and then he said, almost dreamily, "And so I lifted my sword and I killed him. With the last of my strength, I stabbed my brother through the heart."  

The storm had moved on, and through the broken window Elena could hear soft night noises, the chirp of crickets, the wind sifting through trees. In Stefan's room, it was very still.

"I knew nothing more until I woke up in my tomb," said Stefan. He leaned back, away from her, and shut his eyes. His face was pinched and weary, but that awful childlike dreaminess was gone.

"Both Damon and I had had just enough of Katherine's blood to keep us from truly dying. Instead we changed. We woke together in our tomb, dressed in our best clothing, laid on slabs side by side. We were too weak to hurt each other anymore; the blood had been just barely enough. And we were confused. I called to Damon, but he ran outside into the night.

"Fortunately, we had been buried with the rings Katherine had given us. And I found her ring in my pocket." As if unconsciously, Stefan reached up to stroke the golden circlet. "I suppose they thought she had given it to me.

"I tried to go home. That was stupid. The servants screamed at the sight of me and ran to fetch a priest. I ran, too. Into the only place where I was safe, into the dark.

"And that is where I've stayed ever since. It's where I belong, Elena. I killed Katherine with my pride and my jealousy, and I killed Damon with my hatred. But I did worse than kill my brother. I damned him.

"If he hadn't died then, with Katherine's blood so strong in his veins, he would have had a chance. In time the blood would have grown weaker, and then passed away. He would have become a normal human again. By killing him then, I condemned him to live in the night. I took away his only chance of salvation."  

Stefan laughed bitterly. "Do you know what the name Salvatore means in Italian, Elena? It means salvation, savior. I'm named that, and for St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. And I damned my brother to hell."

"No," said Elena. And then, in a stronger voice, she said, "No, Stefan. He damned himself. He killedyou . But what happened to him after that?"  

"For a while he joined one of the Free Companies, ruthless mercenaries whose business was to rob and plunder. He wandered across the country with them, fighting and drinking the blood of his victims.

"I was living beyond the city gates by then, half starved, preying on animals, an animal myself. For a long time, I heard nothing about Damon. Then one day I heard his voice in my mind.

"He was stronger than I, because he was drinking human blood. And killing. Humans have the strongest life essence, and their blood gives power. And when they're killed, somehow the life essence they give is strongest of all. It's as if in those last moments of terror and struggle the soul is the most vibrant. Because Damon killed humans, he was able to draw on the Powers more than I was."  

"What… powers?" said Elena. A thought was growing in her mind.

"Strength, as you said, and quickness. A sharpening of all the senses, especially at night. Those are the basics. We can also… feel minds. We can sense their presence, and sometimes the nature of their thoughts. We can cast confusion about weaker minds, either to overwhelm them or to bend them to our will. There are others. With enough human blood we can change our shapes, become animals. And the more you kill, the stronger all the Powers become."  

"Damon's voice in my mind was very strong. He said he was now the condottieri of his own ' company and he was coming back to Florence. He said that if I was there when he arrived he would kill me. I believed him, and I left. I've seen him once or twice since then. The threat is always the same, and he's always more powerful. Damon's made the most of his nature, and he seems to glory in its darkest side."  

"But it's my nature, too. The same darkness is inside me. I thought that I could conquer it, but I was wrong. That's why I came here, to Fell's Church. I thought if I settled in some small town, far away from the old memories, I might escape the darkness. And instead, tonight, I killed a man."  

" No," said Elena forcefully. "I don't believe that, Stefan." His story had filled her with horror and pity… and fear, too. She admitted that. But her disgust had vanished, and there was one thing she was sure about. Stefan wasn't a murderer. "What happened tonight, Stefan? Did you argue with Tanner?"  

"I… don't remember," he said bleakly. "I used the Power to persuade him to do what you wanted. Then I left. But later I felt the dizziness and the weakness come over me. Asit has before." He looked up at her directly. "The last time it happened was in the cemetery, right by the church, the night Vickie Bennett was attacked."  

"But you didn't do that. Youcouldn't have done that… Stefan?"  

"I don't know," he said harshly. "What other explanation is there? And I did take blood from the old man under the bridge, that night you girls ran away from the graveyard. I would have sworn I didn't take enough to harm him, but he almost died. And I was there when both Vickie and Tanner were attacked."  

"But you don't remember attacking them," said Elena, relieved. The idea that had been growing in her mind was now almost a certainty.

"What difference does it make? Who else could have done it, if not me?"  

"Damon," said Elena.

He flinched, and she saw his shoulders tighten again. "It's a nice thought. I hoped at first that there might be some explanation like that. That it might be someone else, someone like my brother. But I've searched with my mind and found nothing, no other presence. The simplest explanation is that I'm the killer."  

"No," said Elena, "you don't understand. I don't just mean that someone like Damon might do the things we've seen. I mean Damon is here, in Fell's Church. I've seen him."  

Stefan just stared at her.

"It must be him," Elena said, taking a deep breath. "I've seen him twice now, maybe three times. Stefan, you just told me a long story, and now I've got one to tell you."  

As quickly and simply as she could, she told him about what had happened in the gym, and at Bonnie's house. His lips tightened into a white line as she told him how Damon had tried to kiss her. Her cheeks grew hot as she remembered her own response, how she had almost given in to him. But she told Stefan everything.

About the crow, too, and all the other strange things that had happened since she had come home from France.

"And, Stefan, I think Damon was at the Haunted House tonight," she finished. "Just after you felt dizzy in the front room, someone passed me. He was dressed up like-like Death, in black robes and a hood, and I couldn't see his face. But something about the way he moved was familiar. It was him, Stefan. Damon was there."  

"But that still wouldn't explain the other times. Vickie and the old man. Idid take blood from the old man." Stefan's face was taut, as if he were almost afraid to hope.

"But you said yourself you didn't take enough to harm him. Stefan, who knows what happened to that man after you left? Wouldn't it be the easiest thing in the world for Damon to attack him then? Especially if Damon's been spying on you all along, maybe in some other form…"  

"Like a crow," murmured Stefan.

"Like a crow. And as for Vickie… Stefan, you said that you can cast confusion over weaker minds, overpower them. Couldn't that be what Damon was doing to you? Overpowering your mind as you can overpower a human's?"  

"Yes, and shielding his presence from me." There was mounting excitement in Stefan's voice. "That's why he hasn't answered my calls. He wanted-"  

"He wanted just what's happened to happen. He wanted you to doubt yourself, to think you were a killer.But it isn't true, Stefan . Oh, Stefan, you know that now, and you don't have to be afraid anymore." She stood up, feeling joy and relief course through her. Out of this hideous night, something wonderful had come.

"That's why you've been so distant with me, isn't it?" she said, holding out her hands to him. "Because you're afraid of what you might do. But there's no need for that any longer."  

"Isn't there ?" He was breathing quickly again, and he eyed her outstretched hands as if they were two snakes. "You think there's no reason to be afraid? Damon may have attacked those people, but he doesn't control my thoughts. And you don't know what I've thought about you."  

Elena kept her voice level. "You don't want to hurt me," she said positively.

"No? There have been times, watching you in public, when I could scarcely bear not to touch you. When I was so tempted by your white throat, your little white throat with the faint blue veins beneath the skin…" His eyes were fixed on her neck in a way that reminded her of Damon's eyes, and she felt her heartbeat step up. "Times when I thought I would grab you and force you right there in the school."  

"There's no need to force me," said Elena. She could feel her pulse everywhere now; in her wrists and the inside of her elbows-and in her throat. "I've made my decision, Stefan," she said softly, holding his eyes. "I want to."  

He swallowed thickly. "You don't know what you're asking for." "I think Ido . You told me how it was with Katherine, Stefan. I want it to be like that with us. I don't mean I want you to change me. But we can share a little without that happening, can't we? I know," she added, even more softly, "how much you loved Katherine. But she's gone now, and I'm here. And I love you, Stefan. I want to be with you."  

"You don't know what you're talking about!" He was standing rigid, his face furious, his eyes anguished. "If I once let go, what's tokeep me from changing you, or killing you? The passion is stronger than you can imagine. Don't you understand yet what I am, what I can do?"  

She stood there and looked at him quietly, her chin raised slightly. It seemed to enrage him.

"Haven't you seen enough yet? Or do I have to show you more? Can't you picture what I might do to you?" He strode over to the cold fireplace and snatched out a long piece of wood, thicker than both Elena's wrists together. With one motion, he snapped it in two like a match stick. "Yourfragile bones," he said.

Across the room was a pillow from the bed; he caught it up and with a slash of his nails left the silk cover in ribbons. "Yoursoft skin." Then he moved toward Elena with preternatural quickness; he was there and had hold of her shoulders before she knew what was happening. He scared into her face a moment, then, with a savage hiss that raised the hairs at the nape of her neck, drew his lips back.

It was the same snarl she'd seen on the roof, those white teeth bared, the canines grown to unbelievable length and sharpness. They were the fangs of a predator, a hunter. "Your white neck," he said in a distorted voice.

Elena stood paralyzed another instant, gazing as if compelled into that chilling visage, and then something deep in her unconscious took over. She reached up within the restraining circle of his arms and caught his face between her two hands. His cheeks were cool against her palms. She held him that way, softly, so softly, as if to reprove his hard grip on her bare shoulders. And she saw the confusion slowly come to his face, as he realized she was not doing it to fight him or to shove him away.

Elena waited until that confusion reached his eyes, shattering his gaze, becoming almost a look of pleading. She knew that her own face was fearless, soft yet intense, her lips slightly parted. They were both breathing quickly now, together, in rhythm. Elena could feel it when he started to shake, trembling as he had when the memories of Katherine had become too much to bear. Then, very gently and deliberately, she drew that snarling mouth down to her own.

He tried to oppose her. But her gentleness was stronger than all his inhuman strength. She shut her eyes and thought only of Stefan, not of the dreadful things she had learned tonight but of Stefan, who had stroked her hair as lightly as if she might break in his hands. She thought of that, and she kissed the predatory mouth that had threatened her a few minutes ago.

She felt the change, the transformation in his mouth as he yielded, responding helplessly to her, meeting her soft kisses with equal softness. She felt the shudder go through Stefan's body as the hard grip on her shoulders softened, too, becoming an embrace. And she knew she'd won.

"You will never hurt me," she whispered.

It was as if they were kissing away all the fear and desolation and loneliness inside them. Elena felt passion surge through her like summer lightning, and she could sense the answering passion in Stefan. But infusing everything else was a gentleness almost frightening in its intensity. There was no need for haste or roughness, Elena thought as Stefan gently guided her to sit down.

Gradually, the kisses grew more urgent, and Elena felt the summer lightning flicker all through her body, charging it, making her heart pound and her breath catch. It made her feel strangely soft and dizzy, made her shut her eyes and let her head fall back in abandon.

It's time, Stefan, she thought. And, very gently, she drew his mouth down again, this time to her throat. She felt his lips graze her skin, felt his breath warm and cool at once. Then she felt the sharp sting.

But the pain faded almost instantly. It was replaced by a feeling of pleasure that made her tremble. A great rushing sweetness filled her, flowing through her to Stefan.

At last she found herself gazing into his face, into a face that at last had no barriers against her, no walls. And the look she saw there made her feel weak.

"Do you trust me?" he whispered. And when she simply nodded, he held her eyes and reached for something beside the bed. It was the dagger. She regarded it without fear, and then fixed her eyes again on his face.

He never looked away from her as he unsheathed it and made a small cut at the base of his throat. Elena looked at it wide-eyed, at the blood as bright as holly berries, but when he urged her forward she did not try to resist him.

Afterward he just held her a long time, while the crickets outside made their music. Finally, he stirred.

"I wish you could stay here," he whispered. "I wish you could stay forever. But you can't."  

"I know," she said, equally quiet. Their eyes met again in silent communion. There was so much to say, so many reasons to be together. "Tomorrow," she said. Then, leaning against his shoulder, she whispered, "Whatever happens, Stefan, I'll be with you. Tell me you believe that."  

His voice was hushed, muffled in her hair. "Oh, Elena, I believe it. Whatever happens, we'll be together."

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