The Awakening (Chapter Nine)
Driving back to the boarding house in the faint lavender hush before dawn, Stefan thought about that.
He'd said as much to her, and it was true, but he was only now realizing how long he'd been working toward that conclusion. He'd been aware of Elena's every breath and move for weeks, and he'd catalogued every difference.
Her hair was a shade or two paler than Katherine's, and her eyebrows and lashes were darker. Katherine's had been almost silvery. And she was taller than Katherine by a good handspan. She moved with greater freedom, too; the girls of this age were more comfortable with their bodies.
Even her eyes, those eyes that had transfixed him with the shock of recognition that first day, were not really the same. Katherine's eyes had usually been wide with childlike wonder, or else cast down as was proper for a young girl of the late fifteenth century. But Elena's eyes met you straight on, looked at you steadily and without flinching. And sometimes they narrowed with determination or challenge in a way Katherine's never had.
In grace and beauty and sheer fascination, they were alike. But where Katherine had been a white kitten, Elena was a snow-white tigress.
As he drove past the silhouettes of maple trees, Stefan cringed from the memory that sprang up suddenly. He would not think about that, he would not let himself… but the images were already unreeling before him. It was as if the journal had fallen open and he could do no more than stare helplessly at the page while the story played itself out in his mind.
White, Katherine had been wearing white that day. A new white gown of Venetian silk with slashed sleeves to show the fine linen chemise underneath. She had a necklace of gold and pearls about her neck and tiny pearl drop earrings in her ears.
She had been so delighted with the new dress her father had commissioned especially for her.
She had pirouetted in front of Stefan, lifting the full, floor-length skirt in one small hand to show the yellow brocaded underskirt beneath…
"You see, it is even embroidered with my initials. Papa had that done. Mein lieber Papa …" Her voice trailed off, and she stopped twirling, one hand slowly settling to her side. "But what is wrong, Stefan? You are not smiling."
He could not even try. The sight of her there, white and gold like some ethereal vision, was a physical pain to him. If he lost her, he did not know how he could live.
His fingers closed convulsively around the cool engraved metal. "Katherine, how can I smile, how can I be happy when…"
"When I see how you look at Damon." There, it was said. He continued, painfully. "Before he came home, you and I were together every day. My father and yours were pleased, and spoke of marriage plans. But now the days grow shorter, summer is almost gone-and you spend as much time with Damon as you do with me. The only reason Father allows him to stay here is that you asked it. Butwhy did you ask it, Katherine? I thought you cared for me."
Her blue eyes were dismayed. "I do care for you, Stefan. Oh, you know I do!"
"Then why intercede for Damon with my father? If not for you, he'd have thrown Damon out into the street…"
"Which I'm sure would have pleasedyou , little brother." The voice at the door was smooth and arrogant, but when Stefan turned he saw that Damon's eyes were smoldering.
"Oh, no, that isn't true," said Katherine. "Stefan would never wish to see you hurt."
Damon's lip quirked, and he threw Stefan a wry glance as he moved to Katherine's side. "Perhaps not," he said to her, his voice softening slightly. "But my brother is right about one thing at least. The days grow shorter, and soon your father will be leaving Florence. And he will take you with him-unless you have a reason to stay."
Unless you have a husband to stay with . The words were unspoken, but they all heard them. The baron was too fond of his daughter to force her to marry against her will. In the end it would have to be Katherine's decision. Katherine's choice.
Now that the subject was broached, Stefan could not keep silent. "Katherine knows she must leave her father sometime soon-" he began, flaunting his secret knowledge, but his brother interrupted.
"Ah, yes, before the old man grows suspicious," Damon said casually. "Even the most doting of fathers must start to wonder when his daughter comes forth only at night."
Anger and hurt swept through Stefan. It was true, then; Damon knew. Katherine had shared her secret with his brother.
"Why did you tell him, Katherine? Why? What can you see in him: a man who cares for nothing but his own pleasure? How can he make you happy when he thinks only of himself?"
"And how can this boy make you happy when he knows nothing of the world?" Damon interposed, his voice razor-sharp with contempt. "How will he protect you when he has never faced reality? He has spent his life among books and paintings; let him stay there."
Katherine was shaking her head in distress, her jewel-blue eyes misted with tears.
"Neither of you understand," she said. "You are thinking that I can marry and settle here like any other lady of Florence. But I cannot be like other ladies. How could I keep a household of servants who will watch my every move? How could I live in one place where the people will see that the years do not touch me? There will never be a normal life for me."
She drew a deep breath and looked at them each in turn. "Who chooses to be my husband must give up the life of sunlight," she whispered. "He must choose to live under the moon and in the hours of darkness."
"Then you must choose someone who is not afraid of shadows," Damon said, and Stefan was surprised by the intensity of his voice. He had never heard Damon speak so earnestly or with so little affectation. "Katherine, look at my brother: will he be able to renounce the sunlight? He is too attached to ordinary things: his friends, his family, his duty to Florence. The darkness would destroy him."
"Liar!" cried Stefan. He was seething now. "I am as strong as you are,brother , and I fear nothing in the shadows or the sunlight either. And I love Katherine more than friends or family-"
"-or your duty? Do you love her enough to give that up as well?"
"Yes," Stefan said defiantly. "Enough to give up everything."
Damon gave one of his sudden, disturbing smiles. Then he turned back to Katherine. "It would seem," he said, "that the choice is yours alone. You have two suitors for your hand; will you take one of us or neither?"
Katherine slowly bowed her golden head. Then she lifted wet blue eyes to both of them.
"Give me until Sunday to think. And in the meantime, do not press me with questions."
Stefan nodded reluctantly. Damon said, "And on Sunday?"
"Sunday evening at twilight I will make my choice."
Twilight… the violet deep darkness of twilight…
The velvet hues faded around Stefan, and he came to himself. It was not dusk, but dawn, that stained the sky around him. Lost in his thoughts, he had driven up to the edge of the woods.
To the northwest he could see Wickery Bridge and the graveyard. New memory set his pulse pounding.
He had told Damon he was willing to give up everything for Katherine. And that was just what he had done. He had renounced all claim to the sunlight, and had become a creature of darkness for her. A hunter doomed to be forever hunted himself, a thief who had to steal life to fill his own veins.
And perhaps a murderer. No, they had said the girl Vickie would not die. But his next victim might. The worst thing about this last attack was that he remembered nothing of it. He remembered the weakness, the overpowering need, and he remembered staggering through the church door, but nothing after. He'd come to his senses outside with Elena's scream echoing in his ears-and he had raced to her without stopping to think about what might have happened.
Elena… For a moment he felt a rush of pure joy and awe, forgetting everything else. Elena, warm as sunlight, soft as morning, but with a core of steel that could not be broken. She was like fire burning in ice, like the keen edge of a silver dagger.
But did he have the right to love her? His very feeling for her put her in danger. What if the next time the need took him Elena was the nearest living human, the nearest vessel filled with warm, renewing blood?
I will die before touching her, he thought, making a vow of it. Before I broach her veins, I will die of thirst. And I swear she will never know ray secret. She will never have to give up the sunlight because of me.
Behind him, the sky was lightening. But before he left, he sent out one probing thought, with all the force of his pain behind it, seeking for some other Power that might be near. Searching for some other solution to what had happened in the church.
But there was nothing, no hint of an answer. The graveyard mocked him with silence.
Elena woke with the sun shining in her window. She felt, at once, as if she'd just recovered from a long bout of the flu, and as if it were Christmas morning. Her thoughts jumbled together as she sat up.
Oh. She hurt all over. But she and Stefan-that made everything right. That drunken slob Tyler… But Tyler didn't matter anymore. Nothing mattered except that Stefan loved her.
She went downstairs in her nightgown, realizing from the light slanting in the windows that she must have slept in very late. Aunt Judith and Margaret were in the living room.
"Good morning, Aunt Judith." She gave her surprised aunt a long, hard hug. "And good morning, pumpkin." She swept Margaret off her feet and waltzed around the room with her. "And-oh! Good morning, Robert." A little embarrassed at her exuberance and her state of undress, she put Margaret down and hurried into the kitchen.
Aunt Judith came in. Though there were dark circles under her eyes, she was smiling. "You seem in good spirits this morning."
"Oh, I am." Elena gave her another hug, to apologize for the dark circles. "You know we have to go back to the sheriff's to talk to them about Tyler."
"Yes." Elena got juice out of the refrigerator and poured herself a glass. "But can I go over to Vickie Bennett's house first? I know she must be upset, especially since it sounds like not everybody believes her."
"Do you believe her, Elena?"
"Yes," she said slowly, "I do believe her. And, Aunt Judith," she added, coming to a decision, "something happened to me in the church, too. I thought-"
"Elena! Bonnie and Meredith are here to see you." Robert's voice sounded from the hallway.
The mood of confidence was broken. "Oh… send them in," Elena called, and took a sip of orange juice. "I'll tell you about it later," she promised Aunt Judith, as footsteps approached the kitchen.
Bonnie and Meredith stopped in the doorway, standing with unaccustomed formality.
Elena herself felt awkward, and waited until her aunt left the room again to speak.
Then she cleared her throat, her eyes fixed on a worn tile in the linoleum. She sneaked a quick glance up and saw that both Bonnie and Meredith were staring at that same tile.
She burst into laughter, and at the sound they both looked up.
"I'm too happy to even be defensive," Elena said, holding out her arms to them. "And I know I ought to be sorry about what I said, and Iam sorry, but I just can't be all pathetic about it. I was terrible and I deserve to be executed, and now can we just pretend it never happened?"
"Youought to be sorry, running off on us like that," Bonnie scolded as the three of them joined in a tangled embrace.
"And with Tyler Smallwood, of all people," said Meredith.
"Well, I learned my lesson on that score," Elena said, and for a moment her mood darkened. Then Bonnie trilled laughter.
"And you scored the big one yourself-Stefan Salvatore! Talk about dramatic entrances. When you came in the door with him, I thought I was hallucinating. How did youdo it?"
"I didn't. He just showed up, like the cavalry in one of those old movies."
"Defending your honor," said Bonnie. "What could be more thrilling?"
"I can think of one or two things," said Meredith. "But then, maybe Elena's got those covered, too."
"I'll tell you all about it," Elena said, releasing them and stepping back. "But first will you come over to Vickie's house with me? I want to talk to her."
"You can talk tous while you're dressing, and while we're walking, and while you're brushing your teeth for that matter," said Bonnie firmly. "And if you leave out one tiny detail, you're going to be facing the Spanish Inquisition."
"You see," said Meredith archly, "all Mr. Tanner's work has paid off. Bonnie now knows the Spanish Inquisition is not a rock group."
Elena was laughing with sheer ebullience as they went up the stairs.
Mrs. Bennett looked pale and tired, but invited them in.
"Vickie's been resting; the doctor said to keep her in bed," she explained, with a smile that trembled slightly. Elena, Bonnie, and Meredith crowded into the narrow hallway.
Mrs. Bennett tapped lightly at Vickie's door. "Vickie, sweetheart, some girls from school to see you. Don't keep her long," she added to Elena, opening the door.
"We won't," Elena promised. She stepped into a pretty blue-and-white bedroom, the others right behind her. Vickie was lying in bed propped up on pillows, with a powder-blue comforter drawn up to her chin. Her face was paper-white against it, and her heavy-lidded eyes stared straight ahead.
"That's how she looked last night," Bonnie whispered.
Elena moved to the side of the bed. "Vickie," she said softly. Vickie went on staring, but Elena thought her breathing changed slightly. "Vickie, can you hear me? It's Elena Gilbert." She glanced uncertainly at Bonnie and Meredith.
"Looks like they gave her tranquilizers," said Meredith.
But Mrs. Bennett hadn't said they'd given her any drugs. Frowning, Elena turned back to the unresponsive girl.
"Vickie, it's me, Elena. I just wanted to talk to you about last night. I want you to know that I believe you about what happened." Elena ignored the sharp glance Meredith gave her and continued. "And I wanted to ask you-"
"No!" It was a shriek, raw and piercing, torn from Vickie's throat. The body that had been as still as a wax figure exploded into violent action. Vickie's light-brown hair whipped across her cheeks as she tossed her head back and forth and her hands flailed at the empty air. "No! No!" she screamed.
"Do something!" Bonnie gasped. "Mrs. Bennett! Mrs. Bennett!"
Elena and Meredith were trying to hold Vickie on the bed, and she was fighting them. The shrieking went on and on. Then suddenly Vickie's mother was beside them, helping to hold her, pushing the others away.
"What did you do to her?" she cried.
Vickie clutched at her mother, calming down, but then the heavy-lidded eyes glimpsed Elena over Mrs. Bennett's shoulder.
"You're part of it! You're evil!" she screamed hysterically at Elena. "Keep away from me!"
Elena was dumbfounded. "Vickie! I only came to ask-"
"I think you'd better leave now. Leave us alone," said Mrs. Bennett, clasping her daughter protectively. "Can't you see what you're doing to her?"
In stunned silence, Elena left the room. Bonnie and Meredith followed.
"It must be drugs," said Bonnie once they were out of the house. "She just went completely nonlinear."
"Did you notice her hands?" Meredith said to Elena. "When we were trying to restrain her, I got hold of one of her hands. And it was cold as ice."
Elena shook her head in bewilderment. None of it made sense, but she wouldn't let it spoil her day. She wouldn't. Desperately, she searched her mind for something that would offset the experience, that would allow her to hold on to her happiness.
"I know," she said. "The boarding house."
"I told Stefan to call me today, but why don't we walk over to the boarding house instead? It's not far from here."
"Only a twenty-minute walk," said Bonnie. She brightened. "At least we can finally see that room of his."
"Actually," said Elena, "I was thinking you two could wait downstairs. Well, I'll only get to see him for a few minutes," she added, defensively, as they looked at her. It was odd, perhaps, but she didn't want to share Stefan with her friends just yet. He was so new to her that he felt almost like a secret.
Their knock on the shining oak door was answered by Mrs. Flowers. She was a wrinkled little gnome of a woman with surprisingly bright black eyes.
"You must be Elena," she said. "I saw you and Stefan go out last night, and he told me your name when he came back."
"You saw us?" said Elena, startled. "I didn't see you."
"No, no you didn't," said Mrs. Flowers, and chuckled. "What a pretty girl you are, my dear," she added. "A very pretty girl." She patted Elena's cheek.
"Uh, thank you," said Elena uneasily. She didn't like the way those birdlike eyes were fixed on her. She looked past Mrs. Flowers to the stairs. "Is Stefan home?"
"He must be, unless he's flown off the roof!" said Mrs. Flowers, and chuckled again. Elena laughed politely.
"We'll stay down here with Mrs. Flowers," said Meredith to Elena, while Bonnie rolled her eyes in martyrdom. Hiding a grin, Elena nodded and mounted the stairs.
Such a strange old house, she thought again as she located the second stairway in the bedroom. The voices below were very faint from here, and as she went up the steps they faded entirely. She was wrapped in silence, and as she reached the dimly lit door at the top, she had the feeling she had entered some other world. Her knocking sounded very timid. "Stefan?" She could hear nothing from inside, but suddenly the door swung open.Everyone must look pale and tired today , thought Elena, and then she was in his arms.
Those arms tightened about her convulsively. "Elena. Oh, Elena…"
Then he drew back. It was just the way it had been last night; Elena could feel the chasm opening between them. She saw the cold, correct look gather in his eyes.
"No," she said, hardly aware that she spoke aloud. "I won't let you." And she pulled his mouth down to hers.
For a moment there was no response, and then he shuddered, and the kiss became searing. His fingers tangled in her hair, and the universe shrank around Elena. Nothing else existed but Stefan, and the feel of his arms around her, and the fire of his lips on hers.
A few minutes or a few centuries later they separated, both shaking. But their gaze remained connected, and Elena saw that Stefan's eyes were too dilated for even this dim light; there was only a thin band of green around the dark pupils. He looked dazed, and his mouth-that mouth!-was swollen.
"I think," he said, and she could hear the control in his voice, "that we had better be careful when we do that."
Elena nodded, dazed herself. Not in public, she was thinking. And not when Bonnie and Meredith were waiting downstairs. And not when they were absolutely alone, unless…
"But you can just hold me," she said.
How odd, that after that passion she could feel so safe, so peaceful, in his arms. "I love you," she whispered into the rough wool of his sweater.
She felt a quiver go through him. "Elena," he said again, and it was a sound almost of despair.
She raised her head. "What's wrong with that? What could possibly be wrong with that, Stefan? Don't you love me?"
"I…" He looked at her, helplessly-and they heard Mrs. Flowers's voice calling faintly from the bottom of the stairs.
"Boy! Boy! Stefan!" It sounded as if she were pounding on the banister with her shoe.
Stefan sighed. "I'd better go see what she wants." He slipped away from her, his face unreadable.
Left alone, Elena folded her arms across her chest and shivered. It was so cold here. He ought to have a fire, she thought, eyes moving idly around the room to rest finally on the mahogany dresser she'd examined last night.
The coffer. She glanced at the closed door. If he came back in and caught her… She really shouldn't-but she was already moving toward the dresser.
Think of Bluebeard's wife, she told herself. Curiosity killedher . But her fingers were on the iron lid. Her heart beating rapidly, she eased the lid open.
In the dim light, the coffer appeared at first to be empty, and Elena gave a nervous laugh. What had she expected? Love letters from Caroline? A bloody dagger?
Then she saw the thin strip of silk, folded over and over on itself neatly in one corner. She drew it out and ran it between her fingers. It was the apricot ribbon she'd lost the second day of school.
Oh, Stefan. Tears stung her eyes, and in her chest love welled up helplessly, overflowing.
That long ago? You cared about me that long ago? Oh, Stefan, I love you…
And it doesn't matter if you can't say it to me, she thought. There was a sound outside the door, and she folded the ribbon quickly and replaced it in the coffer. Then she turned toward the door, blinking tears from her eyes.
It doesn't matter if you can't say it right now. I'll say it for both of us. And someday you'll learn.